Review: A Gay Getaway Goes Horribly Wrong in To My Girls
JC Lee's comedy takes place over a memorable weekend in Palm Springs.
"You know what they say about Palm Springs: It's where the gays go to die," observed Tammie Brown on RuPaul's Drag Race. Indeed, something (if not someone) dies by the end of JC Lee's To My Girls, now making its world premiere at Second Stage. This shadiest of black comedies features some of the funniest one-liners onstage, with dialogue as sparklingly bitter as a Campari spritz laced with arsenic.
It's set in the Palm Springs home owned by Bernie (Bryan Batt), an older gay man who is renting the place out for the weekend to Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and his friends. Castor (Maulik Pancholy) is Curtis's bestie and the first to arrive. This group of gay millennials met at the now-defunct Brooklyn nightclub Sugarland over a decade ago and have since fled New York — all except Leo (Britton Smith), who has flown in for the weekend. They hang by the pool and check out the local watering holes as they wait for the arrival of Jeff (Carman Lacivita making the most of an underdeveloped role) and his boyfriend. But when Castor brings home a chiseled-from-marble and extraordinarily bright twentysomething named Omar (Noah J. Ricketts fitting the role like bespoke briefs), old wounds crack open, irritated by a toxic mixture of insecurity and citrus-infused Vodka.
To My Girls joins a tradition of gay plays stretching back to Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, about a birthday party upended by unresolved grudges and velvet rage. Of course, that was 1968: a year before Stonewall, when anti-sodomy laws were still on the books in most places, and gay people were routinely ostracized by their families and subjected to threats of professional ruin. Surely men whose early adulthood coincided with a string of victories for gay rights (Lawrence, Windsor, Obergefell) have been able to put our shame behind us, right? RIGHT?!?!?
Lee portrays a continuity of gay life that is simultaneously heartwarming and depressing: The characters' pilgrimage to a gay Mecca, their embrace of drag, and their insistence on reuniting with chosen family beautifully make the case for a gay culture that is distinct and has value in the 21st century. The impulse to broadcast that culture on social media (both Curtis and Leo have big Instagram followings) is merely a high-tech update to the status games gay men have been playing forever. And Lee shows that shade is always in fashion through his mastery of the artfully deployed barb.
"Not bottoming for white guys doesn't make you the gay Frederick Douglass," Castor hisses as Leo. The writer/barista gets the best lines in Lee's script, and Pancholy consistently knocks them into the stratosphere with his perfect comic timing and effortless sass.
Not to be outdone, Leo retorts, "I don't perform for Caucasians because they glance in my direction and I didn't follow one across the country…" He's referring to Castor's unrequited crush on Curtis, who did indeed depart NYC for LA, soon followed by Castor. Before he is cut off, Smith makes this line hurt (Smith is the winner of a special Tony Award for his work with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and gamely takes on the role of a social justice warrior with a social media addiction).
As the Caucasian in question, Johnson gives a hair-raising performance as an aging manboy who acts dumber than he is, and whose insatiable thirst for validation is the driving force behind the drama. Especially through Curtis's relationship with Castor, we begin to wonder when "chosen family" curdles into codependence. Like Lena Dunham's more succinctly titled HBO series Girls, To My Girls suggests that the intense friendships millennials often build in their 20s must be demolished if any adult relationships are to follow.
For the over-40s rolling their eyes, some generational perspective is offered in the form of Bernie, who bluntly tells Curtis, "When I was your age I fucked my way through all my friendships and called it a personality too." With just the slightest flick of his limp wrist, Batt delivers maximal sting, forcing even the unreceptive to pay attention. It is a testament to Lee's courage as an artist that he has written in Bernie, a gay Trump voter (though not a conservative) who exists not just as a strawman to be bayoneted by our liberal pieties.
Stephen Brackett harnesses the natural comic talents of his performers for a staging that bubbles with magnificent color and outrageous wit. Arnulfo Maldonado's set is just the right mixture of tackiness and opulence, and Sarafina Bush costumes the cast in an attractive array of fitted shorts and ridiculous kaftans. Most importantly, Sinan Refik Zafar's sound design gave me flashbacks to my own Sugarland years, when Britney reigned supreme and everything seemed possible. That makes To My Girls a must-see for gay men pushing into middle age.
Unfortunately, anxiety about the passage of time seems to have influenced Lee's writing process, as if he saw the 90-minute mark approaching and decided he needed to wrap things up with an abrupt ending (Lee did something similar in Luce). A final moment that nods at Crowley attempts to send us out on a high note, but that too seems forced, like a drag queen lip-synching for her life who leaps into the splits and hopes for the best. It doesn't need to be like this: To My Girls is that rarest of plays that I wish had been longer. This story has more life in it yet.