“Gary” is a mess, deliberately so. Written by the downtown provocateur Taylor Mac making his Broadway debut, it stars three of the best comic stage actors in America as three minor characters from Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy who have survived the coup and the carnage of that play, and are now faced with cleaning it all up.
Nathan Lane portrays the character who in Titus Andronicus was identified simply as Clown, and who, in his final scene in Shakespeare’s play, is sent away to be hanged. “An everyman who’s a nobody else,” he says in Mac’s play, where he is named Gary, and has escaped his fate. “That Titus bloke is dead; now I’m the lead,” Gary crows in a Cockney accent.
Gary is in the banquet hall, which houses a towering pile of dead bodies, As he climbs up the mound of corpses, he speaks in rhymed couplets to describe what has just happened in Rome:
Two boys in here got baked inside two pies.
Long story short most everybody dies.
Gary has been promoted from clown to maid and tasked with disposing of the corpses before the inauguration of the new emperor the following day. Much to his surprise, he learns he has a boss. Kristine Nielsen portrays the maid mentioned in Titus, here named Janice. She shows him (gross-out alert) how to suck out the blood and the feces from each corpse, to siphon it off into buckets. The audience has already been primed to expect grade school level humor involving bodily fluids and bodily functions. In the prologue, Julie White as Carol (who is the midwife in Titus) comes out shyly in front of the curtain, spurting blood from her neck. Gary is nothing if not gooey.
But what else is it?
That depends on whom you ask. Gary is a polarizing play. Some who’ve seen it dismiss it as sophomoric, tedious and confusing. Others praise it as clever, funny, and profound. I half-agree with both opinions. It’s the jarring juxtapositions that make Gary feel so original, even though Gary borrows from sources far and wide, not just from Shakespeare, but Beckett, Charles Ludlum, Tom Stoppard, Ionesco, gay burlesque, American Pie. It employs (costume) penises, poo and pigeons, but also a healthy smattering of iambic pentameter; its set (by Santo Loquasto) is both gorgeous and grotesque; it mixes political rhetoric with a campy theatricality.
To best appreciate Gary, I recommend several steps in preparation:
Adjust your expectations.
This is not the kind of comedy you might expect from Nathan Lane, even though his rubbery face and comic timing is as priceless in Gary as it was in The Producers.
This is not even the kind of piece you might have come to expect from Taylor Mac, with neither the astonishing breadth and ambition of his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, nor the accessibility of his Off-Broadway play Hir, which used the conventions of dysfunctional family drama to spoof dysfunctional family drama but also say something insightful about dysfunctional families. Mac pioneered the inclusion of a transgender character, and insisted on the casting of a transgender actor to portray them. I was in awe of both of these Taylor Mac pieces, loved them both unconditionally. Gary is less clear, less plotted and requires more work, more patience.
Reacquaint yourself with Titus Andronicus – at least read a synopsis — before attending Gary.
This will help in seeing how clever the playwright’s parody and at the same time how sharp his analysis of one of Shakespeare’s least popular dramas, which is absolutely spilling over with atrocities, including 14 killings (nine of them shown on stage), rape, mutilation, and cannibalism, to name a few. Mac is making fun of how over-the-top the violence is in Titus Andronicus, but at the same time commenting on the violence and inequality in both art and society. In the prologue, Carol asks (just before blood squirts from both sides of her neck):
making spectacle of vengeance, do we pause?
Or spur it on with centuries of applause?
Understand that Mac sees art as a revolutionary act.
I suspect there is more than a little Mac in Gary, when the character announces his ambition to become a Fool, mount a “Fooling,” and change the world. Mac aims to use theater to Épater la bourgeoisie, though he might not phrase it that way. The fact that Gary is on Broadway strikes me as a kind of performance art, the chance to create the equivalent of the kind of Fool that talks truth to the powerful.
Mac takes seriously the political rhetoric of his characters. At one point, Janice says: “I mean we got plumbing. If we can move something as complicated as our waste and water, it shouldn’t be too difficult to spread a little wealth. And while we’re at it, some shelter would be nice. Oh and a meal.”
At another point, she says: “The entire history of conflict is a bunch of men shuffling princesses. And who ya think had to clean the mess?”
In these comments are surely a clue as to why Gary is so messy on purpose.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is on stage at the Booth Theater (222 W 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through August 4, 2019. Tickets and details
Gary. Written by Taylor Mac; Original Music by Danny Elfman . Directed by George C. Wolfe; Movement by Bill Irwin; Associate Director: Evan Coles . Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates; Makeup Design by Natalie Young; Moving Light Programmer: Jay Penfield and Colin Scott . Featuring Nathan Lane as Gary, Kristine Nielsen as Janice, Julie White as Carol. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell
Full review on DC Theatre Scene