The last occasion I spent time with theatrical performance artist, playwright and provocateur Taylor Mac it was for the 24-hour solo show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which I saw in one continuous 24 hour stretch back in October 2016 at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in the one and only time judy (as Taylor Mac prefers to be known) performed it in this way. As I wrote at the time, "By the time it ended, the previous 24 hours seemed a happy, hazy blur: like the jet lag you experience after a flight to Australia that takes almost as long, but with much more stimulation – and good music – along the way."
I also speculated aloud, "Surely, judy will be the next queer superstar. If Bette Midler’s career famously began in the gay bath houses of New York, Taylor Mac defiantly celebrates its back-rooms and brings it roaring into the mainstream. It’s not every day you hear someone admit that their first wet dream involved Maggie Smith riding a pegasaurus, but then this thrilling show was full of strange and sensational juxtapositions."
And here we are, two and a half years later and Taylor Mac is making a surprise Broadway playwrighting debut at the Booth Theatre, after some 17 works of theatre elsewhere. It is, of course, a similarly defiantly strange and sensationalist show -- springing from the same fertile (and sometimes unashamedly fetid) theatrical imagination. The first thing to say is that it is merely an hour and a half long, not the 24 hours that was a life-changing theatrical event for me. And the second is that it is not quite life-changing, though it does stretch the boundaries of what qualifies as a Broadway play.
Gary is a pitch-black comedy -- the sort that makes Sweeney Todd or a Martin McDonagh gore-fest like The Lieutenant of Inishmore (recently revived in the West End) seem like Mary Poppins. The play is subtitled A Sequel to Titus Andronicus -- Shakespeare's bloodiest play -- and imagines what happens after it and someone has to clear up the mess. The stage is literally piled high with corpses, after a massive massacre. And the experienced, matter-of-fact Janice and her new assistant Gary are at the bottom of the social pile, whose job it is to drain those corpses of their bodily fluids and dispose of them.
As played by Kristine Nielsen and Nathan Lane (the latter in full clown face), they turn this unsavoury spectacle into comic gold. These are Broadway clowns at the top of their game, and they surrender themselves completely to the Ionesco-inspired Theatre of the Absurd. But Mac's play is also an allegory for the current political climate: in an interview in the New Yorker, Mac has stated, "We’re trapped in a cycle where conflict is created and escalated and then created again; we’re chasing sensation." Gary duly delivers that sensation in spades; but as Mac also stated the inspiration and intention was asking, "What would it mean to create a play that’s a revenge on revenge tragedy?"
It's also inevitable to think of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which imagines the action of Hamlet from the lowly perspective of those characters being drawn unwittingly into the drama; as the New Yorker quipped, "Call it “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Bled."
The show is often riotously funny, with a third character Carol, played by the dazzlingly dry and witty Julie White, drawn into the carnage.
The play packs a lot in -- including a surprise coup d'theatre that I won't spoil by revealing. This is bold, audacious work -- Broadway has not seen anything quite like this before.
(Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
"Welcome to the world of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, where carnage and camp coexist — if not exactly in peace, then in a constructive dialectic. Taylor Mac’s new play, which opened on Sunday at the Booth Theater in a production starring Nathan Lane, is the unlikeliest bird to land on Broadway in many a year. Much like Mr. Mac himself at the end of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, his epic revision of American culture, it is fabulous and bedraggled: a defiant and beautiful mess."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The design elements, starting with Santo Loquasto’s set, are all first-class, but impressive through Wolfe’s staging is, a smaller and scrappier production might better capture Gary’s essence—the idea that plays, and the animating spirit of play itself, can be healing. But if staging Gary on Broadway is in some sense a folly, it’s the kind we could use a lot more of."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"It’s got fart gags galore, but Gary isn’t a gas — it’s more like hot air. Subtitled A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, the labored comedy that opened Sunday night picks up where Shakespeare’s gory tragedy of murder, rape, mutilation and cannibalism leaves off. Along the way, it lets three of the funniest actors in the business — Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen and Julie White — twist in the wind."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Post
"You have to hand it to the producers of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus: They have guts. The latest work from acclaimed playwright Taylor Mac wouldn't seem the likeliest of hits in a Broadway environment littered with children's shows and presold properties, even if it does star three-time Tony winner Nathan Lane. But that hasn't dissuaded the intrepid group from presenting this no-holds-barred raunchfest, a "sequel" to one of Shakespeare's lesser-known and -regarded tragedies, featuring a plethora of scatological gags revolving around bodily fluids and gas escaping from corpses. It would be a pleasure to report that the gamble has paid off, at least creatively. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous abundance of talent both onstage and off, the production is mainly notable for being the most batshit-crazy thing to be seen on Broadway in many a moon."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"There’s no shortage of art and craft in this offbeat show; but there’s also a limit to how much goofiness a comedy can support, and Mac may have gone over his limit. The jokes start to feel lame and the crude burlesque routines seem a bit cruel. Is this what happens to clowns when they overreach and do a pratfall? Maybe so. In which case, Mac might do a little bloodletting on his dramatic corpus."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety