'To My Girls,' a toast to millennial 'instagays'

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'To My Girls,' a toast to millennial 'instagays'
Lionel Zalachas, left, and Laurisse Sulty during a rehearsal for “The Little Prince,” which combines elements of acrobatics and dance, at the Broadway Theater in New York, March 25, 2022. A stage version of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s flight of fancy, a classic of children’s literature, lands on Broadway but remains stubbornly earthbound, the New York Times critic Elisabeth Vincentelli writes. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- They don’t seem to like one another very much, these three gay besties weekending together at a tacky Airbnb in Palm Springs, California.

Castor, an Asian American writer scraping by as a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Sherman Oaks, California, doesn’t want to room with Leo, a Black “Queen of Queer Theory” with whom, on previous vacations, he’s had fights about marriage equality.

He and Leo do agree, though, that Curtis, a hookup hound with cheese grater abs, is an irredeemable narcissist, unable to curb his buff white privilege for more than 30 seconds no matter how many times he’s called out for it.

Curtis just wants everyone to have a good time, as long as it’s on his own terms. He treats Leo as a good-luck charm and Castor as a throw pillow: comforting and disposable. His loyalty is to his Instagram followers.

If this round-robin of frenemy fire puts you in mind of “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about catty and self-hating gay men a year before Stonewall, you aren’t far off. JC Lee’s muddled new comedy, “To My Girls,” which opened Tuesday in a Second Stage Theater production, does function, in part, as a millennial update to the earlier and much more pointed work. Call it “The Boys in the Sand,” set not at the dawn of liberation but at its eyes-wide-shut dusk.

Like Crowley’s play, “To My Girls” assembles a clutch of 30-somethings — Castor (Maulik Pancholy), Leo (Britton Smith), Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and a fourth who arrives later — in a safe space where they can be themselves. Here, the space isn’t a mod Greenwich Village apartment but a midcentury bungalow bursting with winky accents that create what one character calls a “Jonathan Adler aesthetic.” (The eyestrain-inducing room and the fake palms outside it are by Arnulfo Maldonado; the desert glare and rippled reflections by Jen Schriever.)

“To My Girls” also echoes “The Boys in the Band” in providing contrast to the bickering, self-involved central characters with two outsiders: Bernie (Bryan Batt), the 60-something gay Republican who owns the Airbnb, and Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), a happy 20-something hottie Castor brings back from a bar. To Omar, no less than Bernie, the others look like weird exhibits in a museum of unnatural history.

That effect is apparently what Lee wants. “Imagine the future archaeologist who has to sort through social media to write their thesis on millennial queens,” Leo says, not thrilled by what he assumes the archaeologist will conclude.

If “To My Girls” is a first draft of that thesis, it’s not a convincing one; its arguments, which are little more than quips, point in too many directions. Do “Instagays” posing “topless with Maya Angelou quotes as their caption” signal, as Castor suggests, the death knell of queer fabulousness? Or, as Leo counters, is heteronormativity the poison? Or, as the play itself seems to demonstrate, is everything really just fine?

Lee, whose play “Luce,” from 2013, is as tightly wound as this one is aimless, seems to want it all ways. Social media and conformity may be killing gay culture, but everyone participates joyfully in the music video Curtis is making to attract more followers. It’s the jolliest thing in the show: a synchronized dance to the Pussycat Dolls song “When I Grow Up,” performed in heels, wigs and diaphanous floral-print caftans. (The costumes, and lack thereof, are by Sarafina Bush.)

“I wanna be famous/ I wanna be a star,” they lip-sync with no irony.

That the routine must pass as one of the play’s high points is part of the problem, indicating how little is happening otherwise. Yes, one character sleeps with another, upsetting a third, but nothing much comes of it. The political and generational arguments, not exactly fresh in the first place, change no one’s mind, perhaps because, as in “The Boys in the Band,” everyone’s blitzed within minutes of arrival. (The play’s title is a toast.) What the high-octane margaritas do for the characters, the quick-sketch rhythms of the writing do for the drama: delink action from reaction. Expediency is all.

When the jokes are good enough, that’s diverting in small doses. Castor, analogous to Harold, the “ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” in “The Boys in the Band,” gets the best lines, often at his own expense — and Pancholy sells them well. In the play’s most compelling scene, with Ricketts’ witty Omar, you can see Castor growing out of his old, self-hating self toward something new, even as you wonder whether he has done so before, perhaps many times, and reverted.

Although the setup of that scene is not credible, and it lasts only five or six minutes, I could have watched a whole play that built its smart observations into meaningful conflict that alters characters. Unfortunately, the actual play disposes of such moments instantaneously, and thus, under Stephen Brackett’s keep-it-snappy direction, has no cumulative power. At the end, everyone’s basically where they started, except hungover. You don’t doubt that another weekend in another few years would play out just the same.

Which is not how life goes — and certainly not how gay life does. Change has been so big and breakneck since “The Boys in the Band” that you can hardly tell the backlashes from the front ones. Even a comedy should acknowledge that, as Drew Droege did in “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” and “Happy Birthday Doug,” a pair of scalding one-man shows about those left mangled on the tracks as the gay rights locomotive chugs on.

No one is mangled, or even much moved, in “To My Girls,” a play that asks gay men to “protect the fire that keeps you flaming” but never shows what the fire is made of. Tequila, perhaps?

‘To My Girls’

Through April 24 at the Tony Kiser Theater, Manhattan; 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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