It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the world has turned to what the playwright Taylor Mac would term “poo,” but it takes separate quantities of artistic daring and showbiz know-how to bring Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus to Broadway. Time and again during the performance, I sat there mouth agape, not just at the sustained bravura of Mac’s vision of the abyss – a widening hellhole to which the only possible antidote is art – but at the vision required by the producer Scott Rudin and his surpassingly smart creative team to get this 90-minute phantasmagoria to the Booth Theatre in the first place.
How many people know the Shakespearean gorefest that is Titus (in London the play is staged with some frequency) and are in a position even to make sense of the title? No matter. Mac’s scabrous, scatological whirligig of a play requires no advance homework. Some will view proceedings merely at the level of the (surprisingly funny) fart jokes that abound, in keeping with the rushing geysers of bodily fluids that pour forth now and again. (Julie White contains a veritable fountain of the stuff.)
Others will marvel at the visual invention of a set by Santo Loquasto suggesting a trippy Tate Modern take on Hieronymus Bosch, alongside costumes from the venerable Ann Roth that sheath the play’s “three disposables” (an ironic echo here of Hillary Clinton’s famously remarked-upon “deplorables?") in layers of fabric that exist to be battered and begrimed. Things are a mess in the corpse-strewn landscape of Gary, and all involved – the ace lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer included – revel in the sort of devil-may-care design opportunity that is unlikely to come along twice. However else Gary fares in this year’s awards race (and it’s likely, alas, to be too odd to go the distance), its visual invention is something else.
So is Mac’s play, which can exhaust as well as enlighten but exists throughout in a thrilling limbo between low comedy and the highest aspirations posed by art. “What are you crying for?” comes the question, to which Nathan Lane’s eponymous Gary replies simply, “The state of the world.” The response evokes both Beckett and King Lear, that latter masterwork further sounded in Gary ’s existence as Mac’s own resident Fool. It’s worth noting how infinitely more moving this production is than the misbegotten Sam Gold-directed Lear playing a few streets away. Shorter too.
White’s “damaged” midwife Carol (“I prefer quirky,” she says by way of adjectival correction) starts the play, introducing us to a parade of rhyming couplets and British accents that the cast’s three quintessentially American talents field with aplomb. An inauguration is due to take place the following morning to fete the new emperor, and so the space must be cleared of its sky-high pile of the rotting dead, not least because they are getting in the way. (“Sorry,” says Gary soon upon entrance after jostling a corpse.)
What sort of realm is this? A land tottering, we hear, from autocracy to democracy and back again to autocracy (sound familiar?). “The entire world is just like this room,” notes Kristine Nielsen’s braying Janice, in between pumping out intestines and tossing baubles into the audience. The vocal demands placed by the play upon Nielsen are especially pronounced, and you have to hope that this distinguished trio of thesps are monitoring their resources to make it through eight shows a week. True to form, Nielsen gets some of the more operatic outbursts of Mac’s adventuresome text, all the while hinting at the formidable Mrs. Lovett she might one day make (if she can sing). Carol is a smaller part, but White gives it her whacked-out all, and is at no point funnier than in her admission that “I should read more” when reference is made in passing to Metamorphosis.
The play’s gross-out factor is pretty much a given, albeit handled with sufficient facetiousness to not require the ledger of fainting attendees that has been a Titus constant at various iterations of Gary’s predecessor onstage in London. We learn that Gary himself existed as minor-league “comic relief” in Titus (if one can imagine such a thing) and is thrilled this time to be “coming first” – a far preferable fate to the fears he previously harbored of being hanged.
Lane at this late date needs no introduction as the most protean and audacious American stage actor going, and it’s gratifying to find a talent lauded with refreshing such iconic roles as Pseudolus, The Iceman Cometh’s Hickey, and, just last season, Roy Cohn jumping into the unknown and enabling Mac’s play to swim in the commercial sea. Busy navigating his own spectrum from clown to maid to, yes, fool, Lane’s Gary brings to mind a Restoration-mode Maggie Smith – that hair! His inflections (again, somewhat Smith-style) bring down the house while this actor’s knack for shifting gears prompts a clutch in the throat. Glimpsed silently counting the corpses, he reminds us that carnage remains no laughing matter. (Lane also at one point proves an able ventriloquist – one further new string to his bow.)
True to the Bard, Mac manages to locate pathos amid the grotesquerie and has the perfect mood-careering partner in his director, George C. Wolfe. I love the mini touches of “meta” on view now and again, starting with White applauding her own entrance along with the audience and building to an appeal to art that allows both Gary and Carol to lay claim to inventing various genres. I’m not sure how or where one would classify Gary, except to insist upon its thoroughgoing originality amidst a sea of repurposed and refashioned titles (especially among the musicals). It’s left to Gary to look toward an end to tragedy in the play’s embrace of “wonder,” in which case let’s just say that it takes one to know one. Gary is a wonder, indeed.