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Downtown fave Taylor Mac makes quite an impression with his Broadway debut, the eminently strange and hysterically funny Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. The play is set just after the bloodbath that concludes Shakespeare’s violent tragedy and is prefaced by a monologue by a midwife named Carol (Julie White), who self-referentially explains directly to the audience, “Like God, a sequel hides inside an ending: / When time is up you pray that it’s extending. / For life, to the cultured, and to the philistine / Once felt, is craved ’til thrills become routine. / But once routine the thrills, to thrill, must grow. / And if they don’t, an outrage starts to show. / So double up on savagery and war: / To satisfy you multiply the gore.” She introduces not only the rhythmic nature of the dialogue and the British accents all three characters will speak in but also the Monty Python-like comedy of spurting blood in which anything goes and no joke is too high or low. The Clown (named Gary by Mac and portrayed with extra relish by Nathan Lane), who had delivered a letter to Saturninus in the original Bard play, has avoided execution by agreeing to become a maid. Little does he know that he will have to work with the stern, humorless Janice (Kristine Nielsen) to clean up more than a thousand ragged bodies piled high in the royal banquet room, a fate perhaps worse than death.
“I always was a clown who hated clowns,” Gary, who used to juggle pigeons on the street, confesses to the bodies. Belittled by Janice, he tells her he is “more like an everyman who’s a nobody else” and shares his dream of becoming a fool, which he describes as “a clown with ambition.” (Master clown and actor Bill Irwin is credited with the movement.) Janice teaches him the ropes, which involves thoroughly eliminating the remaining gas from each victim and then sucking out their innards and blood using two separate hoses. Mac includes a parade of flatulence and penis jokes that are not the usual Broadway fare while also taking on the current political climate in America. “Ya think the streets are all clean and nifty? Ya know as well as I it’s a hell on earth out there and only getting worse, what with the autocracy turned to a democracy turning back to an autocracy, as we speak,” Janice, who refuses to talk in rhymes or Iambic pentameter, says. A moment later, Gary bursts into tears and Janice uncaringly asks, “What ya crying for?” He answers, “The state of the world.”
The puns and buffoonery keep on coming as Pulitzer Prize finalist Mac (A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) and five-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Topdog/Underdog) push Janice, Carol, and Gary deeper into the mess left behind by the powers that be. The near-endless supply of dead people on Santo Loquasto’s imaginative set evokes the casualties of wars waged by tyrannical governments. “Seems the casualty is how casual it is,” Gary opines. But there are also glimmers of hope. Explaining the surprising emotions he experienced when he was barely saved from being hanged and saw the sky as if for the first time, Gary says to Janice, “Once ya feel that, it’s proof, aint’ it? Proof ya don’t gotta live your life accepting the muck.” He believes he can save the world, which Mac thinks everyone is capable of. Referring to the court, Gary says, “If two maids could turn the hopelessness of a massacre into a coup of beauty, they too can imagine a better world.”
Tony winners Lane (Angels in America, The Producers) and White (The Little Dog Laughed, Airline Highway) and Tony nominee and Obie winner Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Dog Opera) have a blast together. At the last moment, Andrea Martin, who was cast as Janice, got hurt and had to leave the show, so Nielsen moved from Carol to Janice and White came on as Carol, creating a formidable comic trio with a lot to say about society while making the audience laugh itself silly.
Mac, who uses the gender pronoun “judy,” delivers some grand pronouncements without becoming preachy, getting right to the point when Gary declares that the next step should be “not a violent coup. An artistic one. An onslaught of ingenuity that’s a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge. A comedy revenge to end all revenge. Well, not just a comedy. A sorta folly. Not a spectacle. Or a comedy folly that is a spectacle. Sorta a machination. That’s full of laughter. But more than laughs. But with the laughs. Well, sorta a thinking man’s laughter. But could be a knee-slapper.” Which is just what Mac’s play is.