2ST’s To My Girls Doesn’t Bite Down Hard Enough Where and When It Probably Should

 Jay Armstrong Johnson and Maulik Pancholy in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: 2ST’s To My Girls

By Ross

First off, I know, I know, I am soooo late posting this review, and I feel terrible about it. I do really try to be that reviewer who always posts some sort of review of a play in a timely manner, in return for these wonderfully appreciated press tickets I am given. As I do feel so blessed. So here it is, a review of a show that, unfortunately has already closed. Please forgive me for this tardiness, but after a solidly overscheduled few weeks in New York City in that month leading up to the Tony deadline, my priorities were placed in the writing of reviews for all those shows that were nominated for an award this season, especially the Outer Critics Circle Awards (which I am so lucky to be a voting member of) and, most naturally, the Tony Awards. To My Girls, which ran at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway theatre, was not one of those shows, and sorta rightly so I might add, so it kept getting put to the bottom of the stack of Playbills under all those other shows that I needed and wanted to get to before this one.

I must also admit that it belonged at the bottom because even though the play, written by JC Lee (HBO’s GirlsLooking) uses an old standardized formula; the one that brings together a pack of old friends and supplies them with an abundance of alcohol and accussations – much like the much stronger (although dated) Boys in the Band back in 1968 (and in the stellar revival in 2018), the end result that landed on the Tony Kiser Theater stage just never finds its way to bring much new breathe or pride to the genre, nor to that well-designed living room where the play takes place. It’s a sad truth, and one that I am quite disappointed by, no matter how many margaritas are served up to those young cute men in Palm Springs. 

Strutting forth with ‘millennial angst’ written in bold letters across its chest, To My Girls sashays in with promise, delivering forth a well manufactured diverse group of 30-something gay friends reuniting in Palm Springs after the COVID lockdown of 2020. And it turns out that it is exactly how I pictured it would be, even with knowing so very little about what would actually happen in the play. The set-up is current, stereotypical, yet somehow solid and safe, with Curtis, portrayed by the talented and pretty Jay Armstrong Johnson (Encores’ A Chorus Line), standing proudly at the center of this sordidly snarky tale. He has been cast as the annoyingly insecure Instagram influencer who brainstormed this holiday get-together out of an almost unconscious abject need for connection. Or so he says. It might be adoration more than anything, but he knowingly is desperate for his ‘girls’ to gather around him, almost narcissitically, as a way to feel the love, and for them all to feel connected to one another once again. We feel that authentically, but it is also clear that his, and all of their self-esteem issues, just keep getting in the way of actual engagement. It flaunts itself, this lacking of self-awareness or knowledge, making them all spiral and lash out a little bit more with each drink served. No surprises so far.

Britton Smith and Jay Armstrong Johnson in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Handsome Curtis is forever used to being the central light of the group. He is the pretty one who always gets what he wants when he wants it, especially with this group of friends, including the spot light. But lately, it hasn’t been working out the way he thinks it should. He’s questioning his validity and vitality, causing him to sometimes selfishly act out (or has he always?) as he tries unsuccessfully to deal with the fact that he is getting older. He is living and breathing in a gay world that (he believes) only values youth and beauty. He may be right about these assumptions, because arriving with him, present and struggling with his own brand of self-esteem issues, is Castor, solidly portrayed by the always engaging (and equally handsome) Maulik Pancholy (George Street Playhouse’s Fully Committed). Castor definitely has packed his under-valued belief system in his bag, alongside his protective coat of arms, overcompensating at every chance he has by stating off-putting opinions or by standing up and against something or anything that will distinguish himself from the rest. It’s quite desperate and needy, and he is not alone in that syndrome.

Leo, the friend who has flown in from NYC to be rejoin this girl band of gay boys, strongly portrayed by Britton Smith (Broadway’s Be More ChillShuffle Along) also has a lot to say about everyone and everything. The ironic part of it all is that the playwright, while trying so hard to be progressive and inclusive, hasn’t really found his way into making Leo, the Black character, a fully developed and important character in the mix. He is more of a side-lined commentator than an actual participant, and almost directly after the scene when Curtis does and says something unforgivable to Leo, the moment is forgotten, pushed out of the way, and Curtis, as he is in this play’s entirety, is forgiven, hugged, and danced off into the sunset together in a quick blurred ending that left me utterly amazed, and angry that he got away with it all. What the…?

But before that mess even gets started, the playwright, one by one, checks all the “important issue” boxes with a vengeance, with Leo striking a chord in all the arenas that Castor hasn’t either gotten around to or is not for him to say. It’s almost like a quick coles note lecture of all of the problems with gay culture, delivered in short snappy moments of dialogue that almost resemble real life, but not quite. Between the three of them, they systematically cover almost every current ‘problem’ issue that could be said by these young and somewhat damaged souls, whether we really want to hear from them or not.

Bryan Batt, Noah J. Ricketts, and Maulik Pancholy in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Not to worry though. The few boxes that haven’t been checked are soon taken care of by their older AirBnB host, Bernie, played hilariously by Bryan Batt (Broadway’s Sunset Blvd) who, lucky for us, finds the zing in almost every line and movement. I’m not sure the play really needed to add the layer of political discourse that he is given to display, nor does he need to say some of the many emotionally disconnected bits of frivolity he throws around so jokingly. Some of them being almost heartlessly chipper. It doesn’t really add anything real to the scenario at hand, and sets us back a bit into our seats a wee bit. But I’m guessing the playwright believed he had a few ‘Red Cap Trump’ jokes and jabs that needed to be used somewhere or said by someone before it’s too late, so he found his way to deliver them up to us. Once again, whether we really wanted to hear them or not.

But jokes and jabs are the nature of this play, and To My Girls doesn’t let you down in that department. They start to fly as fast as the drinks begin to flow as these so-called friends gather together and get the party started. Margaritas are served up alongside the topics of social media addiction, white privilege, body shaming, and some troubling self-esteem issues related to not being conventionally attractive, all of them getting their well-formated due. A much needed discourse, between drinks, dancing, and singing along to the soundtrack of a stereotypical gay man’s soundtrack, dressed to the nines in high heels and wigs. The three get their groove going fast while waiting for two more who are driving in from L.A., yet despite all the playful interactions and declarations of love and care, these millennials don’t seem to find their way, failing to fully establish the bonds of friendship strong enough for us to really feel the sting of the brutally honest reveals that soon come driving in. And boy, do they come, even if we see them a mile away, formulated out of stereotypical pool-party cultural pieces displayed almost blatantly from the very beginning.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Maulik Pancholy, and Britton Smith in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I will say that there is a lot of honor in the difficulties brought up by director Stephen Brackett (Broadway’s The Lightning Thief) even if they are not parcelled out well and honestly. He pushes forward insights upon insights into the tremendous problems that live inside of our obsession with social media, physicality, privilege, and body shaming within the gay community, with racism constantly being referred to and white-washed as “just a preference” rather than what it actually is. It’s frighteningly clear, especially when Leo says to Curtis, “​​I won’t go along with racism dressed as fetish. It takes daily work to remind myself I am deserving of love. So when some mediocre boy in a gay bar tells me he’s not into Black guys and that’s ‘just a preference,’ I need every fiber of my being not to collapse inward in judgment.” This is the impact it has on all those within the gay community that aren’t, well, basically, Curtis, the beautifully chiseled handsome white guy who even when he acknowledges his privilege, still assumes he can get away it. And unfortunately, in To My Girls, he basically does.

Unpacking that baggage in a Palm Springs living room, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado (Broadway’s A Strange Loop), with lighting by Jen Schriever (Broadway’s Birthday Candles), costuming by Sarafina Bush (Broadway’s Pass Over), and sound design by Sinan Reflik Zafar (Broadway’s What the Constitution Means…), the play ends up letting me down, relying too heavily on the millennial rendition of Boys in the Band without giving us an ending of true worth and validity. All of those generational disconnections displayed here, particularly in the presentation of the young pretty boy/overly contrived plot shifting point, played well by Noah J. Ricketts (Broadway’s Frozen), make bonding and connectivity difficult, and almost impossible, even amongst these supposedly good friends. The barbed jokes work and the audience’s laughter supports them, but in terms of creating something meaningful, To My Girls fails in the introspective and authenticity department. Curtis, in my opinion, can’t and shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily, and a drag dance-off to the sounds of the Pussycat Dolls is not the ending this play needs, as it doesn’t really feel that any change will actually be initiated. That, I find just plain annoying, even if it is an ode to another older but wiser play about gay men fighting over shame, self-hate, and friendship.

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