By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 12, 2022: JC Lee’s (Luce) new comedy, To My Girls, at the Second Stage’s Terry Kiser Theater, is the latest entry in the tradition of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 The Boys in the Band. I mean plays in which a claque of gay male friends gather to gossip, hook-up, and natter about their sexual orientation. The girls in Lee’s title are the men themselves, their drawlingly spoken dialogue a stream of sarcastic one-liners, their movement femme from ankles to wrists, their quivering vulnerabilities always on display, and their interactions resembling a mirror-mirror contest for biggest drama queen of all.
I’m a straight, white man in his eighties, so I hope I’m not offending anyone when I describe these men more as hyper-articulate stereotypes than three-dimensional people. They call each other “girl,” not to mention—ugh!—“faggot,” use feminine pronouns, toss off gay cultural references like confetti, carry on promiscuously, are addicted to Instagram, Grindr, and Tinder, parade around in six pack-revealing speedos and chiffon caftans (spot-on costumes by Sarafina Bush), and do drag routines in wigs and kinky boots. Now and then they pontificate on homosexual issues as if lecturing on queer theory.
The group, looking forward to a break from pandemic isolation, has gathered for a weekend getaway at an Airbnb in Palm Springs, California, rented to them by Bernie (Bryan Batt), an older gay man. Bernie owns a dog called Sophia, unseen but crucial to the overwrought denouement. The living room/kitchen set—designed by Arnulfo Maldonado and lit by Jen Schriever—is white, sleek, modern, and dominated by a couch’s colorfully overstated upholstery. Upstage are sliding doors leading to the offstage pool. (I was happy to see my dining room chandelier’s twin over an upstage table!)
The racially diverse friends, in their mid-to-late thirties, have assembled from different places. They are the handsome, privileged Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson), white; the neurotically insecure Castor (Maulik Pancholy), Asian; the African-American Leo (Britton Smith), flying in from New York (from which the others have fled); and—appearing late because he and his partner have been fighting—Jeff (Carman Lacivita). There’s also a local boy-toy in jockey briefs, Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), who mingles braininess with abs that practically have abs of their own.
Curtis, apparently a social media influencer, has gotten a discount for promising to make a video promoting the rental to other gays. For Leo, though, the weekend is a chance for the friends “to get fucked up! To swim, to dance, to drink, to body shame, to fight over which Britney album is the best.”
Castor, a writer who works as a Starbucks barista, is the loudest and most outré of the bunch. When Curtis asks him to tone it down, he replies, “I happen to be a loud gay person, Curtis. Normal gay people are loud.” The friends also are all liberals, haters of “that orange dipshit,” which offers an opportunity for a few predictable jokes when Bernie, the landlord, reveals that he’s a Republican. There’s a moment, however, when he castigates the others for their annoyingly constant focus on identity and politically correct buzzwords, like “virtue signal”; I suspect not a few liberals may actually feel a bit simpatico with Bernie’s point of view.
Very little happens plot-wise, which appears to be the rule for such talky, jokey, character-driven plays, until a small flurry of contrived dramatic activity erupts toward the end. Mostly, To My Girls is about family-like bonds, jealousies, secrets spilling, arguments and reconciliations, and finding purpose through those one loves. When I went, many laughed loudly throughout, as if seeing a first-class play by Terrence McNally, to whose work the second-class To My Girls bears some resemblance. I smiled or chuckled lightly here and there, such as when Curtis says to Leo: “You love Edward Albee,” and Leo responds, “That’s true. It’s the whitest thing about me.” However, as the play’s ninety or so minutes wore on, the bad zingers, petty chatter, lack of action, and absence of empathy-worthy characters turned my attention increasingly from stage to watch.
The acting does little to alleviate the discomfort. Under Stephen Brackett’s superficial direction, the characters remain facile and unconvincing, offering a nearly nonstop display of familiar tropes aimed at a niche audience. The actors are all polished professionals, but they often seem more intent on aiming for laughs than creating real people from whom the comedy emerges naturally. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Curtis, when not forced to prance about, comes closest to resembling someone real, but it’s hard to see how anyone could build a long-standing relationship with Maulik Pancholy’s shrilly neurotic Castor.
The Boys in the Band may not be a great play, but its frank portrayal of openly gay men paved the way for many finer works about such characters. To My Girls, though, is not one of them.
To My Girls
305 W. 43rd Street, NYC
Through April 24, 2022
Photography: Joan Marcus