Review: In Which Way to the Stage, Always Starting Over on the Quest to Be a Blazing Supernova
Ana Nogueira's new comedy explores the friendship of two Idina Menzel obsessives, and the boy who gets in the way.
The adage came, so they say, from Harvard Law School: "Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't be here next year." They imparted a version of that inspirational maxim to the first-year drama kids where I went to college, changing it to "most of you won't make it in New York." Indeed, it was true — most, if not all, of my college acting classmates are using the skills they honed in classes like play analysis and scene study to manage restaurants or teach high school math. (Not that there's anything wrong with those extremely noble professions.)
Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins), the musical-theater-obsessed protagonists of Ana Nogueira new comedy Which Way to the Stage at MCC Theater, are in a similar situation. The 30-something besties are struggling to gain any sort of foothold in an industry that they don't really fit into. Jeff has resigned himself to the fact that the only parts out there for a femme gay man like him are the ones he creates for himself as a drag queen. Judy, meanwhile, is described as "real" — loud, Jewish, and not conventionally pretty, she isn't the platonic ideal of a Broadway star. She gave up acting to become a realtor, though she recently started auditioning again for stock productions of Avenue Q and Spamalot.
It's no wonder that Judy and Jeff idolize Idina Menzel, as unconventional a Broadway celebrity as there ever was. Each week, they make a pilgrimage to the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theatre to try and claim what is rightfully theirs: Menzel's autograph. Menzel's run in If/Then is coming to an end (and she never signs), so their chances are getting slimmer.
If/Then is a show about the varying paths someone's life can take depending on their fateful decisions. Judy makes a life-altering choice herself when she starts going out with Mark (a very convincing Evan Todd), a finance bro who gave up a lucrative career to chase his dream of being on Broadway. But Mark is still trying to figure out his own choices, too, and why they keep leading to Jeff.
More than anything else, Which Way to the Stage is a coming-of-age story, and Nogueira branches out that topic to cover friendship, theater-industry competition, the politics of bisexuality, the misogyny of drag, learning how to harness your personal powers, loving musicals, and what it means to worship at the altar of your idol, all in roughly 110 minutes. That's a tall order, and while she doesn't succeed on all fronts (honestly, who could?), she is at least a little bit successful in each case.
Were I an actor, particularly a struggling one, this show probably would have gutted me like a fish. Alas, I am merely a reviewer, so all I can say is that I wish Nogueira had found a way to present the central "drama" of it all in a way that was as unique and promising as the setup. Far too often, I felt like I had seen this play before — parts of it, at least — and the ending is particularly egregious as she lets Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne do the work for her, instead of coming up with a satisfying conclusion on her own. Director Mike Donahue doesn't really help, generally guiding the actors (a quartet rounded out by the very funny Michelle Veintimilla) to make things bigger instead of more believable.
I also found it oddly maddening to watch the actors lug heavy set pieces on and off stage during half-blackouts. Given that several stagehands appear toward the end to change over Adam Rigg's realistic but flimsy set (which re-creates the exterior of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, down to the If/Then artwork and excerpted USA Today review on the door), I don't know why it was up to the actors to do it throughout. You could see how difficult it was for them and it took me out of the play.
That said, the struggle of these characters to gain a foothold in their chosen profession is especially poignant in the nonetheless endearing performances of Goldberg and Jenkins, who deliver the theater in-jokes supplied by Nogueira with all the bitchiness of the posters on All That Chat. If you've ever debated whether Bernadette or Patti made the better Rose and then had a good cry about it, Which Way to the Stage is the play for you.