The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: MCC’s Which Way to the Stage
Theatrical references are thrown around like beautiful fun confetti in MCC Theater‘s hilarious and surprisingly meaningful new play, Which Way to the Stage. They fly in and out with a smart force, zinging to the heart of the matter, before ricocheting around to hit another theatrical target dead center with aplomb. It’s epic and zazzy dialogue, written with a clever insider spark, shot out with such wild and insightful abandonment that we are left speechless. Playwright Ana Nogueira (Empathitrax) knows her stuff, finding fight, fun, and meaningful fire while just standing outside the stage door of Broadway’s If/Then waiting and hoping.
Standing tight, the two fragile and imperfect characters that we meet in that first deliciously written scene, circa 2015, are the duo, Jeff and Judy, played to perfection by Max Jenkins (CSC’s Unnatural Acts) and Sas Goldberg (Broadway/RTC’s Significant Other; MCC’s Moscow Moscow…). They inhabit the roles so completely that one wonders if they are the actual playwrights of this smart comedy, as they squabble about theatrical history and performances with almost a harsh glee. They end each other’s sentences like they are family, meant to stick together through thick or thin, even when they disagree. They wait together, stretching their limbs and verbiage, while unpacking all the discomforts in their lives, particularly the fears and panic that live inside the audition room and in their performances. All this while holding their breath, hoping that they might finally get an autograph from If/Then‘s mega-musical theatre star, Idina Menzel, something that some rain deprived them so many moons ago.
That first scene is filled with zinger lines that theatre junkies will just love and eat up, wiggling with delight when they get the Alice Ripley of Bernadette Peters reference, as well as the hundred other ones that fly fast and furious. It’s a stupendous opening, flashing insight into these two performers’ deepest insecurities and strengths with spark, while never really giving away the ultimate idea. And just as we start to wonder where this is planning on going with these two, the scene shifts, courtesy of the talented scenic designer Adam Rigg (Public’s cullud wattah), with exacting costuming by Enver Chakartash (ATC’s English), a purposeful and sharp sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar (NYTW/Broadway’s What the Constitution…), and a solid big-finish lighting design by Jen Schriever (2ST’s Grand Horizons) and Mextly Couzin (PH’s Tambo and Bones), and a new playing field or two are rolled out. It’s clear that Nogueira has more in store for us than smart banter by a stage door.
With a cast that also includes two other spectacularly well constructed, seemingly staunch stereotypes, played to the max by the very appealing and handsome Evan Todd (Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and the wonder that is Michelle Veintimilla (Broadway’s The Visit; ABC’s The Baker and the Beauty). To say more about how they both dig in and unearth stereotypes is to give to much away, but within their smart portrayal and words, the play flies us forward, shedding light on an emotional experience within. Which Way to the Stage plays it strong and flexible, experimenting with sexual and gender dynamics, stereotypes, and inequalities that are never simple or obvious, mixed in with a huge unpacking on the ideals of beauty and the powerful attraction of privilege and passion.
All the levels of engagement are twisted around and unpacked with a wit and a force, both compellingly funny but also heart-breakingly concise. Their experiences burst forward, one after the other, throwing them all for a loop in a way that is utterly course-changing and hilariously charming. The play teeters on falling over its own too Fossiessed feet, but never does, righting itself with an ease that is almost jaw-dropping, particularly in that last scene between the two female actors as they engage, waiting to go in for another soul-crushing audition while never failing one another surprisingly. At that moment the play stands up, and we scream our approval, all about the lie of fixed identity and the idea of who is actually empty and who is full. “Sorry, you’re a Roxie“, an existential truth that forces almost everyone to look a whole lot deeper into their dynamics and fears, without ever giving it up or taking the easier way out.
Featuring the choreography by Paul McGill (MCC’s The Legend of Georgia McBride), Which Way to the Stage ends with the biggest bang of the season. To borrow one of its more hilarious lines, this wonderfully smart and hilarious play “is a garden, not an empty vase” and should be taken very seriously, all while you laugh and feel in awe of those involved for the whole 110 minutes. It’s the “realest bitch there is” off-Broadway, and you better get yourself to that stage.
Previously titled Here She Is, Boys, Which Way to the Stage began previews in the Newman Mills Theater at MCC Theater (511 W 52nd Street New York, NY 10019) on Thursday April 14 and will open on Tuesday May 10 for a limited engagement through May 22, 2022.