It would be incorrect to say there’s nothing surprising about “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” an entertaining but slight and predictable comedy about drag performers, which has now opened as the first MCC production of the season at the Lucille Lortel. What’s surprising is that it’s written by Matthew Lopez, best known for “The Whipping Man,” one of the most produced plays in America, a dark drama of a Passover seder in the South right after the Civil War attended by three Jews, two of them the former slaves of the third.
“The Whipping Man” is startlingly original. “The Legend of Georgia McBride”… is not.
Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) is a mediocre Elvis impersonator working in a dive bar in the Florida panhandle owned by Eddie (Wayne Duvall); “if you stay til the end, drinks are half-off,” a slovenly, drunk Eddie introduces Casey’s act. Soon, Eddie tells Casey he’s being replaced by a drag show put together by Eddie’s cousin Tracy (Matt McGrath.) The timing couldn’t be worse for Casey: He and his wife Jo (Afton Williamson) are already way behind in their rent, and she has just told him she’s pregnant. So Casey reluctantly becomes part of Tracy’s drag act.
“I don’t know anything about doing drag,” Casey protests.
“Like that’s ever stopped anyone from doing drag,” Tracy replies.
As he learns to perfect the act, a la “Gypsy,” Casey doesn’t tell his wife what he’s doing. Will she find out? (“predictable,” remember?)
If the set-up results in enough costume changes and lip-synched numbers to fill an actual drag show, it also allows for a goodly number of fun and funny moments — and a couple of really unfunny ones. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Matt McGrath, who is quick with the quips, and slows way down when called upon to react to something, drawing from his repertoire of facial expressions to hilarious effect. His face says it all when Tracy first enters, and takes in the establishment where he will now be performing. That should have been enough to establish how run-down Eddie’s bar is, but Lopez also has Tracy’s sidekick Rexy (Keith Nobbs) add “Bitch, Anne Frank would have said no thank you to the place,” followed later by “I’ve been raped in better places than this.”
Lopez has said his new play was inspired by the drag queens he befriended at the local gay bar when he was a high school senior in Panama City, Florida. There are glimpses that suggest character mettle observed from life, and these brief moments are enhanced by the cast of five, with standouts Duvall and McGrath, who can do poignant along with punchlines. Director Mike Donahue also does wonders on a relatively cramped stage.
But “Georgia McBride” mostly feels like a low-budget knockoff of the basic Broadway/Hollywood drag musical pattern (“La Cage Aux Folles,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Victor/Victoria”), accessorized with a message from “Casa Valentina” (the straight Casey finding his real me in his eventual drag persona), as well as familiar bits from formulaic gay plays (the lithely muscular Brown strips down to his briefs some half-dozen times.) The sometimes sweet but overly long scenes between Casey and Jo wrap the whole concoction in a cloak of heterosexuality, as if designed to shield the mainstream audience from too much fabulousness – this in an Off-Broadway theater on Christopher Street!
It’s important to point out that no playwright was harmed in the making of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Even Eugene O’Neill wrote a comedy, and Lin-Manuel Miranda took the equivalent of a summer break between his groundbreaking “In The Heights” and “Hamilton” to co-create the cheerleader musical “Bring It On.” To paraphrase the immortal Gloria Gaynor, Matthew Lopez has all his life to write, and he will survive.
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The Legend of Georgia McBride
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theater
Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Mike Donahue
Choreographed by Paul McGill
Cast: Dave Thomas Brown, Wayne Duvall, Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs, Afton C. Williamson
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $69 – $80
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is scheduled to run through October 4, 2015.
Update: Extended through October 11, 2015