In “Theater Camp,” Ben Platt and Mary Gordon as camp counselors Amos and Rebecca-Diane confront a 12-year-old camper who’s just delivered an intense emotional performance during a rehearsal for the summer’s final musical production.
“She’s using,” Amos says gravely.
“It’s just chapstick, I swear,” the girl lies.
“On my god, Mackenzie,” Amos explodes. “I’m not mad. I’m just furious. Your tears should come from within.” Mackenzie was making herself cry artificially with something called a tear stick.
It’s one of the many absurd but knowing moments in “Theater Camp,” a newly released film put together by four friends, now Hollywood names, that are clearly inspired by their own experiences attending theater camp as aspiring thespians.
Since AdirondACTS, the movie’s fictional musical theater camp for kids in upstate New York, resembles the actual theater camp that I attended in upstate New York, I see these moments as redeeming a mockumentary that many film critics compare unfavorably to Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman.”
I found the humor in “Theater Camp” too often strained, with the shtick that sets up the contrived plot particularly unfunny: Amy Sedaris has what amounts to a cameo as Joan Rubinsky, the owner of the camp, who (minutes into the film) suffers a stroke while attending a middle school performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the strobe lights from the production putting her into a coma. This, we’re informed in one of the many title cards in the film, was “the first Bye Bye Birdie related injury in the history of Passaic County.” The camp reverts to her clueless son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a bro-talking “business vlogger” who, overwhelmed by the camp’s looming debt, sells it to an evil corporation….although (do I really need a spoiler alert here?) it all works out at the end.
But even the tasteless bit about the stroke is followed by a throwaway scene that will have old theater kids nodding in recognition. The strutting, gyrating boy in a gold lamé suit who had been performing as Birdie in the show is shown remarking to his fellow thespians: “All I was doing was blowing the roof off of Bye Bye Birdie then I look over to my house seats and there’s Joan convulsing. It was frightening. I was obviously staying in character.”
That same diminutive actor (Alexander Bello) is later heard auditioning with a number from Sweeney Todd (“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit…”)
The running joke in “Theater Camp” (more affectionate observation than outright mockery) is how precocious (and pretentious?) the kids are, how intensely they take their art, how committed they are to a career in entertainment; but also how seriously they’re treated by the adults at the camp who are teaching them. Amos and Rebecca-Diane were themselves campers there for eleven years, and have been counselors there for an additional ten; the main subplot is their complicated relationship. “We share a soul,” Rebecca says at one point; they also share the derailment of their initial dream to be successful professional performers, but diverge on what to do about it.
Some of the specific moments made me laugh; most just made me nod. A sample:
The stampede when the cast lists are put up.
A bumper sticker that says “Mom, Dad…I’m a Thespian.”
A sign announcing “Meryl Day” at the camp.
The cliques in regular camps and schools might be nerds and jocks, etc. The cliques in this theater camp including finger-snapping “Fosse kids,”
Darla (Kyndra Sanchez) is cast as old Joan in the musical that Amos and Rebecca-Diane are writing in homage to the comatose Joan, called “Joan, Still” (an allusion to the “Still Alice,” the film in which Julianne Moore suffers from dementia.) She asks Joan’s son Troy for a “sit down to go over her mannerisms, favorite foods and traumas…Do you happen to have her dream journal?”
The brief scene from “The Crucible Jr.,” (“We are gay witches and this is our spell”)
Rebecca-Diane playing an elaborate melody on the clarinet and asks the class to sing it back to her
The pronouncements by the teachers in their respective fields:
Clive (Nathan Lee Graham): Dance is the highest expression of human existence
Amos (Platt): Acting is remembering and then choosing to forget
Rebecca-Diane (Gordon): Music is the closest thing we have to the other side
Glenn (Noah Galvin): Wanting to learn about stagecraft is an act of nobility, even if it’s just because dance was full.
The stage manager Glenn is underestimated by everybody, including himself – but turns out to be by far the most competent member of the team…in everything!
The precocious kids turn out to be greatly talented – as are the kids portraying them. And the songs in the final musical wind up delighting and moving not just the audience in AdirondACTS but those watching “Theater Camp.” As Glenn quotes Joan: “We’re theater people. We know how to turn cardboard into gold.”
Theater Camp is written by Ben Platt and Mary Gordon (who have known each other since childhood), along with Nick Lieberman (Platt’s friend since high school) and Noah Gavin (Platt’s fiancé), and directed by Gordon and Lieberman. It is adapted from Lieberman’s 2020 short of the same name