What’s most cringeworthy about “To My Girls” is not that, in an era of “they/them,” the group of gay men in their late 30s who meet for a weekend in Palm Springs are all “She needs a cocktail” and “We got you, girl” – nor that this retrograde gender pronoun reversal is just one of the several ways that “To My Girls” follows the old formula for gay plays established by “Boys in the Band” back in 1968. Camaraderie–>wit and vulgarity–>bitchiness, confrontation and revelation–>dancing.
One could argue that this formulaic approach is part of playwright JC Lee’s effort to place his characters, who are primarily gay men of color, in a familiar context, in order to share his insights into what has changed and what hasn’t. Lee certainly has insights he wants to share – about gay life, about social media, about racism in the gay community, about his generation. It’s why the four friends nearing forty are joined in the play by two outlier gay characters – one in his 60s and one in his 20s – so that Lee can compare the generations. Some of what Lee wants to say feels worth listening to, although his points are most often made in speeches.
What’s most cringeworthy about “To My Girls,” which is running at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through April 24, is that Lee grafts his insights onto a play whose nearly every scene – whether meant to make you laugh, or make you think, or move the plot along — feels imposed by the playwright, (the result of the playwright’s artificial insemination, to use the kind of sex-adjacent metaphor employed in the play), rather than emerging naturally from the characters.
Near the beginning of the play, when Leo (Britton Smith) arrives at the rented house, joining his friends Castor and Curtis (Maulik Pancholy and Jay Armstrong Johnson), he enters singing to them while recording himself on his phone. A few minutes later, he elaborately primps and positions himself for the phone camera, before offering a long monologue to his Instagram followers about the history of Palm Springs, how it became a gay enclave, and how “my friends and I are going to put on a show for you this weekend because it’s what we do.” The main thing we know about him, then, is that he’s obsessed with social media. Castor mocks him for it, but Curtis expresses gratitude: “it was your social media that helped me understand what was going on” during the pandemic.
Yet, not long afterward, Leo announces he has deleted all his social media accounts.
“Why would you do that?” Curtis asks, a reasonable question.
“Because Castor’s right,” Leo replies. “When was the last time any of this was fun?” (Um, 20 minutes ago, when you first entered the house.) “…How much time have we wasted trying to squeeze ourselves into tiny boxes for strangers to scroll past?”
Playwright Lee wants to tell us what he thinks about social media, and so his character Leo has to give up something that he clearly loves so that he can be the playwright’s spokesman.
Can we blame this about-face on director Stephen Brackett, or the actor himself; should Leo have seemed to have enjoyed his hobby less? I don’t think so.
The shame of it is, Britton Smith is terrific in the role – convincing both as an uninhibited, fun-loving gay guy and at the same time a self-aware and politically aware man, someone who has matured, in contrast to some of his old friends who have not.
Like Smith, the five other cast members offer varying lessons in how to keep in character and maintain some dignity even while the playwright places them on a soapbox or puts them on display.
Maulik Pancholy, a fine comic actor who is a familiar face from television, portrays Castor, who is the poorest of the four friends, and the least confident. He has had a crush on Curtis, and something of a one-sided love-hate relationship with him, since the friends met in New York City a decade or so ago. He followed Curtis when he moved to California. Pancholy is made to wear a deliberately demeaning outfit that’s meant to be funny – S&M boots, hot pants, black fish-net stockings and negligee – which he explains is part of his revenge against Curtis. This was even more inexplicable to me than Leo’s about-face.
Costume designer Sarafina Bush dresses Noah J. Ricketts in one costume after another that’s not meant to be funny, but sexy – we first see him wearing only underpants, but even when fully dressed, it’s in an outfit that bares his abs. Ricketts portrays Omar, whom Castor picks up in a bar. Omar is in his 20s, so of course he and Castor talk about the difference in the generations of gay men,
Omar: You’re claiming the pain of generations of gay people
Castor: You don’t think my friends and I suffered for being gay?
Omar: I think watching a lot of internet porn and getting called a faggot in high school isn’t the same as all your friends dying because they did the one thing that made them feel like a human being.
Bryan Batt, also a very funny actor and a familiar face on television, portrays Bernie, the 60-year-old owner of the AirBnB where they’re staying. Bernie also confronts the friends for the inadequacy of their generation.
As Curtis, the only white guy among the friends, Johnson comes closest to the villain of the play. He’s self-centered and manipulative; most of the twists and turns in the plot revolve around his libido. Johnson is too likeable an actor to come off as such a knave, but perhaps that’s how Curtis has been able to get away with it for so long.
But not this weekend. This weekend everything comes to a head.
There are some jokes in “To My Girls” that made me laugh, mostly because of the actors’ delivery, although my favorite is probably the pillows of Arnulfo Maldonado’s spot-on set.
Some of the humor is strained, such as a scene involving Jeff, who is the last and late-arriving character. The role, which is intended mostly as comic shtick, is portrayed by Carman Lacivita, who makes the most of it. At one point, Bernie says something to Jeff that is the most vulgar joke in the play. I didn’t find it funny, and won’t repeat it. But I noticed that Jeff’s reaction to the joke wasn’t much different from mine. He looked at Bernie strangely, with a hint of distaste.
It made me wonder: How would these characters, if freed from the playwright’s control, react to what he’s making them say and do (and wear)?
To My Girls
Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through April 24
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $69 – $125
Written by J.C. Lee
Directed by Stephen Brackett.
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Sarafina Bush
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Sound Design: Sinan Refik Zafar
Movement: Patrick Mccollum
Casting: The Telsey Office
Cast: Bryan Batt, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Carman Lacivita, Maulik Pancholy, Noah J. Ricketts, and Britton Smith.