For some theatergoers wondering whether to see the hour-long romantic comedy bravely entitled “Hot Mess,” it might be enough to know that Max calls his girlfriend “Poopy Pants.” Or that his girlfriend Elanor calls Max “Jive Turkey.” Others may drop off after learning that an earlier version of this play, written a decade ago by married couple Dan Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtree and reportedly inspired by their courtship, was entitled “Regretrosexual.”
Those who ignore such warning signs will discover an innocuous play performed by an appealing three-member cast that has the slightest of plots. Max (Max Crumm) meets Elanor (Lucy DeVito) and is drawn to her like no other person he’s ever met. (We first see them in bed – vertical as if the audience is getting a bird’s eye view.) But Max used to have sex with men, and is afraid to tell her. Some three-quarters of the way into the play, he tells her.
Until they get there — while they’re getting to know one another, and we’re getting to know them — “Hot Mess” is streaked with dialogue and situations and jokes (fart jokes, waiter jokes, comedian jokes) that are supposed to be funny, but aren’t. This is a problem, since the three main characters are all supposed to be professional jokesters – Elanor a stand-up comic, Max a writer for a humor blog, Max’s best friend Lewis (Paul Molnar) a TV-famous comedian, now apparently washed up. (Molnar also plays a former fling of Max’s, whom Max runs into awkwardly when he and Elanor go to a movie theater to see “Some Like It Hot.”) To be fair, I did laugh twice. The first time was when Lewis is incensed upon learning that Elanor once did a magic trick as part of her stand-up routine, an ire that doesn’t diminish when Max tells him she’s stopped including it. “You don’t stop being a magician,” he bellows. “It’s a disease.”
The second laugh came when Max was riffing on the “Questioning” community — the “Q” in LGBTQA – while explaining that he is part of the “B” in LGBTQA – bisexual. If there’s some substance in “Hot Mess,” it’s in the attempt to clear up common misconceptions about bisexuality.
But there really isn’t much substance. A different director and pair of playwrights might have done more with the characters’ many problems and traumas – Max is a recovering alcoholic; abuse and suicide run rampant in Elanor’s family. But both the characters and the production treat these problems airily like material for light comedy. The characters’ psychological issues are just part of their quirky charm.
And the actors are charming enough, and the play’s running time brief enough, that “Hot Mess” might well work as a date night for some undemanding couples. Still, it’s bracing to realize that the play is being presented at The Jerry Orbach Theater, named after one of the original stars of “The Fantasticks,” a romantic comedy of sorts with old-school charm, quirkiness and wit that ran at this venue for 11 years, closing just this past June. “The Fantasticks” deserves a better successor than “Hot Mess.”
Jerry Orbach Theater
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein. Set design by Tobin Ost, costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, lighting design by Matthew Richards, sound design by Bart Fasbender.
Cast: Max Crumm, Lucy DeVito, Paul Molnar
Running time: One hour
Tickets: $77 to $97