It’s worth noting that Zach Braff began his career playing Woody Allen’s son.
That was in 1993′s Manhattan Murder Mystery, his first role, before his hit run on Scrubs, before his writer-director turn with Garden State. Armed with those financial and artistic successes, Mr. Braff has returned to the stage-he’s done a few small parts in Public Theater Shakespeare productions-for Trust, an excellent dark comedy by Paul Weitz, which opened last week at the Second Stage Theatre. In it, Mr. Braff plays, more or less, Woody Allen.
He’s good at it: In his nine years on Scrubs, he perfected the charmingly awkward thing, the antihero leading man. His Trust character, Harry, isn’t the same as his Scrubs character, J.D.-there’s a steely spine under Harry’s neurotic exterior, and he’s not nearly so goofy-but Mr. Braff has a virtuosic command of the comedy in Mr. Weitz’s very funny script, with great timing, funny bits of stage business and, at least in the play’s early scenes, an Allenian arsenal of pauses, stutters and double takes.
Harry opens the play as an over-analytical, overly chatty, excessively needy nebbish in a bad suit who’s visiting an S&M parlor. He has sold his dot-com for $300 million and doesn’t know what to do with his life. (Being rich, he explains, is “like, I don’t know, deeply deflating?”) His wife doesn’t like him; he has no friends; he’s stopped by the dungeon in hopes of feeling something. He soon realizes his dominatrix, Mistress Carol (an outstanding Sutton Foster, playing very much against her usual sweet-girl type), was a high-school classmate; they go for coffee, and for the first time in a long time, he feels a connection. It’s meet-cute, sort of, but with chains and a ball gag.
(In real life, I should mention, Mr. Braff and I were friendly acquaintances in high school, though we’ve never had any subsequent S&M run-ins, and he never played me a Shins song that changed my life.)
Harry’s wife, Aleeza (a nicely arch and caustic Ari Graynor), is a painter who can’t paint, crippled by her husband’s amazing and unexpected wealth, someone who doesn’t need to do anything and thus can’t do anything. Mistress Carol-her real name is Prudence-lives with a domineering boyfriend, Morton (Bobby Cannavale, dependably manly and, here, surprisingly skinny), who’s impressed with his own intelligence and abilities but can’t actually hold down a job. (“I got 1560 on my SATs,” he rants to Prudence. “I should be the one with a hundred million dollars!”)
Mr. Weitz-the screenwriter, director and producer behind American Pie and About a Boy, among others-has written a script that is funny, dirty, occasionally shocking, literate and intelligent and emotionally rich. (Which is to say: It is a prime example of what could be thought of as the Second Stage aesthetic, and it makes a fine companion to Leslye Headland’s funny, dirty, shocking, intelligent Bachelorette, currently playing at the company’s uptown space.)
It’s meet-cute, sort of, but with chains and a ball gag.
It paints four distinct and compelling characters, though Harry is a touch underdeveloped: His transition from submissive dweeb to canny manipulator-suddenly, he’s not Woody Allen anymore-is insufficiently explained or justified.
The cast is excellent, and under the guidance of Peter DuBois (who two seasons ago directed Second Stage’s Becky Shaw, which was also smart, funny, dirty and shocking), they give finely calibrated performances. Alexander Dodge’s set is pretty, simple and cleverly constructed-beds and restaurant tables slide on and off from the wings; S&M handcuffs are flown in from above-and Mr. DuBois keeps the action flowing briskly on it.
The four unhappy characters begin the play living a life that feels wrong but without any real idea of how to alter it. But the unexpected reconnection of Harry and Prudence-Harry has had a crush on her since high school, it turns out-has ramifications that show each the possibility of a different life. “It’s not about fun,” Prudence says of the domination-submission fantasies she acts out with her clients. “It’s about accepting yourself, even if it’s temporary.” Eventually, and very gratifyingly, these characters do, in unexpected ways.
“I got a job. I am part of the working world,” Morton announces in his final scene. “I’m managing a Mexican restaurant.” He’d earlier thought he was too good, too smart for a regular job. “Turns out I’m pretty good at managing Mexican restaurants,” he says. And that’s good enough.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S BIG, Gay Dance Party, which arrived last week at Theatre Row after a sold-out and praised run in last summer’s New York International Fringe Festival, delivers on the promise of its title in the most technical sense: There is Abraham Lincoln (indeed, a handful of them, a sort of chorus line-cum-greek chorus in beards and hats); there are gay-rights issues; and there is, in one scene, what could perhaps be termed a dance party.
But if you read the title as carrying the implicit promise of a campy historical review, of a smartly counterintuitive political argument or even of a simple evening of goofy entertainment, you’ll be soundly disappointed. An intriguing title and a handful of ironic-vaudeville staging devices can’t obscure the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party, written by Aaron Loeb and sloppily directed by Chris Smith, is a didactic and predictable message play about the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and gay rights.
It opens with a play-within-a-play, a grade-school Christmas pageant near Lincoln’s Illinois hometown, in which a fourth-grader playing Abe reads from a script that mentions questions raised by historians about Lincoln’s relationship with his law partner, Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed.
The teacher, a kindly closeted lesbian in mom jeans and knitted vests, is promptly fired and put on trial (in this world, teachers’ unions apparently don’t exist), and the play promptly becomes Inherit the Wind: A moralizing politician prosecutes, an old nemesis defends, a high-flying big-city journalist comes to town.
There are a few intriguing moments, as when the (black) defense attorney and (gay) big-city journalist argue about the degree to which the gay-rights movement is similar to the civil-rights movement, about the relative privilege of American gay men. “You boys live in the richest cities in the world-scratch that, the richest neighborhoods in the richest cities,” the pol tells the reporter. “And yet, when someone hurts your feelings, you beautiful men with your awesome hair and expensive clothes and perfect teeth start talking like you’re sharecroppers from Mississippi.” But as soon as it’s raised, it’s abandoned. This Big, Gay Dance Party is also, briefly, an AIDS play, a coming-out story and a historical pageant, as when, from time to time, we’re read a Lincoln quote about the importance of acceptance or unity.
It also has a strange take on homosexuality for gay-rights melodrama. Jazz hands are an inevitable signifier for gayness; the older, big-city gay man has his eye on the young, small-town gay boy; the happily long-partnered lesbian is deeply ashamed of her “secret.”
Still, Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party is genial and mildly entertaining. Tolerance, acceptance and gay rights are good things. But well before the end of this two-and-half-hour sophomoric exercise, a viewer becomes a bit jealous of the titular president: At least he didn’t have to wait for his play to end.