Atrocities happen. Shakespearean-level atrocities, dismembered-and-baked-in-a-pie atrocities. Humanity’s responses – tears, mockery, more atrocity – are ludicrously inadequate, but really, aren’t you just glad we have Nathan Lane on our side?
And while we’re on the subject of inadequacy, put me down for singling out Lane, who is only the most obvious of the pleasures in Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus, the outrageous, hysterically funny and connivingly moving new play opening on Broadway tonight at the Booth Theatre.
With co-stars Kristine Nielsen and Julie White – both splendid – and director George C. Wolfe, Gary could seem almost greedy bringing in original music by Danny Elfman, Ann Roth’s costumes – perfect to the last, bloody thread – and a set design by Santo Loquasto that makes a wondrously macabre mountain out of a massacre. So if Gary wants to gild the lilies and spread ’em around the morgue, go Gary.
Mac, the Pulitzer Prize finalist for the 24-hour outsider masterpiece A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music, winnows the running time, avant-garde experimentalism and a bit of creative reach for the 90-plus minute Gary, but the iconoclastic vision, the captivating balance of highbrow and low, the undercurrent of compassion for a rarely deserving species – all stay true and really rather glorious.
Nipping, snipping and tangling any number of theatrical conventions and pioneers – Shakespearean tragedy, Shakespearean comedy, the Greeks, Punch and Judy, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, Beckett and Mel Brooks, Grand Guignol, British music hall, American burlesque, Charles Ludlam, and finally the genre we might just as well call “Nathan Lane” and be done with it – Gary begins with a panic. A woman we’ll come to know as the midwife Carol, dressed in Elizabethan rose and sensible shoes, slips through the stage curtain to bring some very bad news. There’s been a massacre, and Carol just might be more than a witness – our first clue is the blood that begins spurting from her neck, Python-style.
She has survived, in other words, the carnage depicted in the goriest of Shakespeare plays, the one that gives Gary its full title. Titus Andronicus includes nine on-stage killings (many more offstage), dismemberment, rape and cannibalism, cruelty, sadism, and a deep, ugly calling-out of misogyny that exploits while it condemns.
Gary does some clever, comic exposition, but if you want a jumpstart, here’s what to know: Roman general Titus Andronicus returned from war, most of his many sons slaughtered. He has taken Tamora, Queen of the Goths, as a bounty of war, along with her three sons and a Moor named Aaron. The circle of revenge had Titus and Tamora beheading sons right and left, until finally Tamora orchestrates the rape and dismemberment of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. There’s even a baby – the son of Aaron the Moor – that guilt-wracked Carol does nothing to save from slaughter, or so she thinks.
Once Carol finishes her fast and funny intro, the curtain rises to reveal Loquasto’s most breathtaking contribution: A palace room filled to the brim and beyond with corpses. Think sandbags sculpted into rigor mortis, rictus faces, genitals exposed. They’re not realistic, exactly – more like dummies that might fall from a building in a Three Stooges short, anatomically corrected – but disturbing all the same.
And there to clean up the mess is Lane’s Gary and Nielsen’s Janice, he a clown (barely mentioned in Titus) spared the noose by a promotion to maid (help being hard to find), she a real maid who resents having this inexperienced, inept idiot suddenly bossing her around.
“You think this is me first massacre?” she demands. “You think I sat idle on the Ides of March?”
To make matters worse, Gary quickly looses whatever enthusiasm he brought to his newfound gig once Janice walks him – and us – through the gruesome details. Gas must be expelled – here, the nod to Brooks’ Blazing Saddles – and all manner of entrails removed and bodily fluids drained (think siphoning gasoline from a car). One look – one long, beautifully performed deadpan look – at the pile of work ahead and Gary realizes he’s not exactly living his best life. Scheming commences.
His plan: He, and the reluctant, just-get-the-work-done Janice – will transform this carnage into some sort of truth-telling, order-disrupting performance piece for the leaders and dignitaries gathering soon. He’ll call it “a Fooling” (“I’ve invented a new genre!”) that, he brainstorms, will make creative use of these cadavers. Maybe that hunky soldier’s corpse, with its non-committal appeal, will play the lead.
Janice (Nielsen replaced the originally announced Andrea Martin after the latter broke some ribs during early rehearsals; details were not disclosed, but all the corpse-mountain climbing offers hints) is having none of it – she just wants to clean the place up, embalm and bury the bodies. She insists on at least a modicum of respect for the dead, even the males who bring the world one catastrophe after another (she covers the women and children, including her beloved Lavinia, with a tarp, leaving the men and their members exposed; still, she bristles when Gary uses one of those dead brutes as his own Charlie McCarthy).
And there it is, the crux of Mac’s audacious slapstickery, the dilemma behind this and all satire: For all the allure of Gary’s creative idealism – comedy high, low and anywhere in-between put in the service of toppling hierarchies, undoing the status quo, ending savagery – is he merely, as even the increasingly stagestruck Janice knows deep-down, merely normalizing the fiends? And yes, this Cockney charwoman capable of executing a massive spit-take of effluvia, uses normalizing – Mac wasn’t named a MacArthur Fellow for nothing.
The Fooling is performed – of course it is – and involves Danny Elfman’s music, the return of midwife Carol, and a startling danse macabre with movement designed by our own real-world clown Bill Irwin. Before Gary is over we’ll see a baby in an adorable shark suit, a heartbreaking elegy for the dead Lavinia and all the women who’ve met similar ends, and something that approaches an understanding, if not a reconciliation, between Gary, Janice and anyone who’s ever wondered whether Alec Baldwin’s Trump does more harm than good. Yes, laughter normalizes, but what’s the alternative?