curtain call

Wigs, kaftans and body image issues take center stage in ‘To My Girls’

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To My Girls
( to r) Jay Armstrong Johnson, Maulik Pancholy and Britton Smith in To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Rundown:

Has gay culture evolved or devolved since the community was “liberated” via legalized marriage? New York’s legalization date (June 24, 2011)  is an important touchstone for the characters in To My Girls, a new comedy by JC Lee now playing at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. During a gag- and drama-filled Palm Springs weekend getaway, a group of gay friends discusses how their community has and hasn’t progressed since, diving into buzzy topics such as body image, race, politics, and more. It’s a topical look at contemporary gay culture, even if its exploration feels more like a checklist of ideas to address than a compelling dramatization.

No Tea, No Shade:

Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is a white, gay man approaching 40 who rents a Palm Springs Airbnb for a weekend away with longtime friends. Despite being perfectly in shape, healthy, and employed, Curtis copes with body image issues that lead to intense selfishness, often at the expense of his friends of color, particularly Castor (Maulik Pancholy), who has long lived in Cursits’ shadow while also harboring feelings for him, and Leo (Britton Smith), a New York-based social media activist and influencer. 

When Castor brings home the pec-perfect Omar (Noah J. Ricketts) from a nearby bar, his own body image issues get in the way of his ability to perform. Curtis uses this as an opportunity to sleep with Omar, forwarding a malicious pattern throughout the play of taking advantage of people — particularly people of color — who express what it means to be witnessed through a sexualized white gaze. 

Related: Balls, bats and brawn: Broadway’s ‘Take Me Out’ hits a home run

To My Girls
(l to r) Maulik Pancholy and Noah J. Ricketts in To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus

It is a worthy topic for dissection, and JC Lee’s script is tightest when the friends have hard conversations about being part of a “community” that is still wildly hierarchical, the highly disparate experiences white gays and gays of color may have at the same event, and how body image has toxified queer culture. However, even these moments can feel a little soap box-y, with characters preaching their points without great nuance. Those points feel watered down when the play aims to tackle a litany of other gay issues, such as open relationships, gender expression, and more.

The play’s final two characters feel shoehorned into the plot as the play reaches a resolution after Curtis apologizes to Castor and Leo about his behavior. But at that point, one character, Jeff (Carman Lacivita) has still yet to arrive for the weekend. When he does, his entrance is foolish and out-of-place: he enters covered in blood after accidentally running over the property owner’s dog. That property owner is an older queen (Mad Men’s Bryan Batt) who — surprise! – voted for Trump. His name? Bernie.

Let’s Have a Moment:

Director Stephen Brackett (who’s helming another queer show this season, Broadway’s A Strange Loop) keeps the tone breezy and the pacing zippy. There is great comedic work with the oversized couch that sits center stage in Bernie’s mid-century, Jonathan Adler-inspired house. (Arnulfo Maldonado designed the set, which looks ready for hosting and would absolutely draw hungry renters if listed on Airbnb.) 

Moments of gay merriment uplift the production, including dance sequences (aided by Sinan Refik Zafar’s fizzy and Britney-filled sound design) that feature flowy kaftans and wigs (Sarafina Bush provides the colorful costumes). But the real standout is Pancholy, whose comedic timing is spot-on and who also lends great heart to the friend who may be dismissed as the “funny one,” where humor is as much artifice as armor.

Related: Maulik Pancholy on his return to NYC in the funny and fervent To My Girls

To My Girls
(l to r) Britton Smith, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Maulik Pancholy in To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Last Word:

In the same way that Take Me Out (also playing at Second Stage) addressed homophobia in early-aughts sports and The Normal Heart, before it, pinpointed a key moment in gay political activism, To My Girls, as a text, may represent our present understanding of race relations and friendship dynamics amongst gay men. However, unlike in those other works, the characters here are too thinly drawn to elevate the production, turning them into talking heads — though heads also adorned in fabulous wigs. 

To My Girls plays Off-Broadway at Second Stages’ Tony Kiser Theater through April 24, 2022.

 

Billy McEntee is a Brooklyn-based writer whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Travel + Leisure, and others. He’s a Theater Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and his short film “Lindsay Lindsey Lyndsey” will be released in 2022.