In “Merry Me,” billed as a lesbian sex comedy, a seven-member cast is charming enough to wring laughs out of playwright Hansol Jung’s raunchy effort to queer the canon, in what often feels like a test of how savvy we are culturally, and how with-it we are politically. The heavy borrowing from the classics is a fun game for the cognoscenti, if disjointed and confusing for those without a theater degree. But the gender politics turns smug and ugly.
An Angel (Shaunette Renée Wilson), our narrator, establishes where “Merry Me” is set (repeated verbatim throughout the play) — on a naval basecamp “on an island not far from another nation’s most vulnerable coast cities” — and introduces the cast by name.
In the next three scenes, we meet them two by two.
Lieutenant Shane Horne (Esco Jouléy) is a prodigious bed-mate, adept at giving women the merries (euphemism for orgasm) but can’t get one herself (hence the title.) She has just been released from the brig for seducing the General’s wife, and is trying to convince her ex-lover and current psychiatrist Jess O’Nope (Marinda Anderson) to collaborate with her on the hoax that she’s undergone conversion therapy, in order to draw in more women to seduce.
In the next scene, we get a bird’s eye view of Private Willy Memnon (Ryan Spahn), and Willy’s wife Sapph (Nicole Villamil) having sex in bed, his screaming “Mrs. Memnon” with each thrust.
In the scene after that, we meet Willy’s father and mother, also having sex, with General Aga (David Ryan Smith) also screaming “Mrs. Memnon” as he thrusts his wife, Clytemnestra (Cindy Cheung.)
Over the remainder of the ninety minutes, these characters mix and match in sly allusion to so many plots and characters it’s as if Jung wrote the play while looking at open copies of Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon,” The Poems of Sapho, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” William Wycherly’s Restoration Comedy “The Country Wife,” even Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” while also watching The L Word, 50 Shades of Grey, and Avengers: Infinity War.
There’s plenty of silliness in all this: The characters communicate by paper cup and string, because there’s been a blackout, and only the vibrators work.
But this Great Blackout , as we learn in the last third of the play, was created by the Angel, who tells us she’s from Kushner’s Angels in America. She and the other angels of America created the blackout in order to buy time to find the solution to the world’s many problems. And now they have decided what they must do – give an axe to O’Nope so that she can kill all “Cis-gendered Male Species of European descent,” starting with Private Willy Memnon. “Ignite your queer female rage, let it combust the injustices around you.”
O’Nope at first resists.
Angel: Okay you gonna make me do this: What do you make to a white man’s dollar?
O’Nope: 73 cents.
Angel: How many years after Democracy was invented did women get the vote?
O’Nope: 26 centuries
Angel: In the 69 years since its existence how many female directors have been hired to direct a Shakespeare in the Park?
O’Nope: Give me that axe.
One might prefer to see the expression of hatred for white males as a satire of extremism, and the character O’Nope does eventually relent, saying she would rather love than hate. But there’s that axe in her hands, a real one, solid and heavy, and it is used in the staging of O’Nope’s attempts at chopping off Willy’s head, which are meant to be comic, but are just awkward and misguided. And Willy is made to say things like: “Did I just unwittingly ignite your rage with my non-woke white person wallowing?” Yes, he’s told, he did do that; he has to learn to “read the room.”
Hansol Jung is the playwright who most recently wrote “Wolf Play,” which I saw at Soho Rep, and, before that, “Wild Goose Dreams,” which I saw at the Public Theater. I thought Goose was cluttered with cleverness (a talking penguin in the toilet), enhanced by vivid and inventive stagecraft and design overseen by director Leigh Silverman, who also directs “Merry Me,” with similar colorful touches. But “Goose” also had a quiet core, its central story being about two lonely singles in South Korea who connect through an online dating site, a relationship with complexity and pathos. The closest that “Merry Me” comes to such a relationship is the one that develops between Lieutenant Horne and Sapph; they recite poetry to one another and even sing a love ballad. (It doesn’t hurt that Jouléy in particular is luminous.)
But there’s too much else going on for this to be the core, and both Jung and Silverman have a different aim here. They want “Merry Me” to be fun and funny – and it sometimes is. But they also create a pastiche to present some standard works of Western Civilization through a sexy, queer eye. “Fat Ham” won a Pulitzer for doing this. But “Merry Me” has too many moments that feel less like artful reimagining than political pandering.
“Merry Me” is at New York Theatre Workshop through November 19.