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Fair Is Foul and Foul Is Fair in Scotland, PA's Fast-Food Kingdom

A 1970s burger empire is the setting for this musical reinterpretation of Macbeth at Roundabout Theatre Company.

Taylor Iman Jones and Ryan McCartan as Pat and Mac Mcbeth in the world premiere of Scotland, PA, directed by Lonny Price, at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre.
(© Nina Goodheart)

Scotland, PA, a satirical 1970s riff on Shakespeare's Macbeth in the power-hungry world of fast food empires, is a sharp left turn for composer Adam Gwon. Best known for his 2008 Roundabout debut Ordinary Days — a wholesome ensemble musical about young adults carving out their paths in New York City — Gwon's work is largely associated with simple storytelling and consumable melodies. If you're concerned that he's thrown those lovely qualities into the deep fryer in service of a gruesome narrative, rest assured that even through scenes of witchcraft, murder, and self-mutilation, he holds on to that familiar, pleasant sound. But does a story that ends with a bloody death lend itself to music you could describe as "nice"? To quote the another Shakespeare play, "there's the rub."

Directed by Lonny Price, the show takes its setting from the 2001 indie movie on which it is based. We find ourselves in rural Pennsylvania and a town of sad underachievers. Then again, maybe they're not that sad. Everyone we meet at Duncan's burger joint, aside from some enmity for the restaurant's eponymous owner (an irredeemably villainous Jeb Brown), seems generally content with the simplicity of their lives.

Everyone, that is, but Pat (Taylor Iman Jones), high school sweetheart and now wife of Mac (Ryan McCartan), a cheerful, plaid-wearing, ponytailed dude with an arsenal of ideas that could revolutionize to-go dining. And if you're familiar with Macbeth, you can see where this is all headed. Pat's ambitions turn Mac into a murderous Burger King. The Scottish-American dream is achieved. But at what cost? Only our three witches — or rather, pot-puffing hippies, Jessie, Hector, and Stacey — know the answer to that (Alysha Umphress, Kaleb Wells, and Wonu Ogunfowora compose our amusing trio of narrators and plot drivers who suffer from a perpetual case of the munchies).

Kaleb Wells, Wonu Ogunfowora, Alysha Umphress, and Ryan McCartan in a scene from Scotland, PA.
(© Nina Goodheart)

Scotland, PA gains momentum in step with its descent into madness. The first few scenes of book writer Michael Mitnick's forced dialogue do not bode particularly well: Duncan's son Malcolm (Will Meyers) performs a watered-down version of teenage rebellion; Pat and Mac establish a paint-by-numbers example of young love; and the rest of the Duncan's staff members get their duly zany intros (Lacretta does the best at her assigned one-liners as the brassy Mrs. Lenox).

Of course, in order to have a dramatic spiral, we need to start from a place of mundane stability, and that's exactly what we get. That's also a place Gwon's songwriting style makes perfect sense. Pat sings the lovely "What We've Got" (a very measured "I want" song for a Lady Macbeth), followed by Mac's invigorated "Everybody's Hungry" (a driving number that only sometimes offers glimmers of McCartan's gorgeous voice), and the quintessentially musical-theater ensemble number "Drive Thru" (a presentation of Mac's latest greatest idea, put to Josh Rhodes's lackluster choreography).

After Duncan's murder and Mac's rise to moderate power, Scotland, PA starts to sink its teeth into its increasingly macabre content. That's also the point at which we are graced with Megan Lawrence's droll presence as detective Peg McDuff (she delightfully takes over the role played by Christopher Walken in the film).

Megan Lawrence (center) plays Peg McDuff.
(© Nina Goodheart)

Still, we never get the feeling of a free-falling plunge into complete psychosis with Gwon's tunes staying set in their conventional ways. Jones and McCartan deliver an enchanting rendition of their second act love song "Clairvoyant" (the song the creators are clearly hoping stays in your head after the curtain comes down). But it comes across more like a brief return to cognizance than a disturbing mixture of lust and homicidal appetites.

And we know for a fact that McCartan is capable of the latter, having performed that exact musical mental breakdown as J.D. in the 2014 off-Broadway cast of Heathers. He's still got that glimmer in his eye that simultaneously charms and terrifies, coupled with a silky smooth voice that functions like an irresistible but deadly fly trap. If only we felt as out of control watching his demise as Mac claims to feel in the middle of it (the same applies to Jones's "out, damned spot" meltdown song "Bad Dream," which she sings about her eternally grease-burned hand).

Visual cues successfully build our sense of foreboding: Anna Louizos's set transforms from the drab Duncan's into the menacingly shiny-red McBeth's. Costume designer Tracy Christensen exchanges Mac and Pat's '70s trailer-park grunge for glittering outfits suited for Tony Manero. And makeup designer J. Jared Janas decks the ghosts of Mac's victims in fully Halloween gore…though only one of those victims truly leaves a lingering presence.

Jay Armstrong Johnson steals the entire show with his performance of Banko, the lonely stoner who throws himself a birthday barbecue that ends up being Mac and Pat's alibi for the murder of Duncan. He gleefully maps out the impending festivities with the solo number "Kick-Ass Party" (featuring some of Gwon's cleverest lyrics), which Johnson raises to the level of showstopper through his comic abilities alone. His character, tragically, is not long for this cruel world, but we can be grateful that he gave Scotland, PA some personality while he was there.

Jay Armstrong Johnson as Banko in Adam Gwon and Michael Mitnick's new musical Scotland, PA.
(© Nina Goodheart)