'To My Girls' review — a comedy about friendship that needs more heart
During one scene transition of the new Off-Broadway comedy To My Girls, there is a mashup of Britney Spears's "Toxic" and Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me." It's a combination that's tonally so opposite you wouldn't think it works, but it, to put it frankly, slaps. Unfortunately, the rest of the play does not live up to the imaginative promise of that remix.
To My Girls, currently running at Second Stage's Off-Broadway space, uses a tried-and-true dramatic formula: longtime friends reuniting for one weekend, a well-designed living room, and alcohol. JC Lee, who has also written for Girls and Looking on HBO, does breathe new, contemporary life into the American living room play by adding a diverse cast of characters of different races, as well as a healthy dose of millennial angst.
To My Girls takes place over one weekend in Palm Springs, as a group of 30something gay men reunite after the Covid-19 pandemic. Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is an Instagram influencer who is becoming increasingly insecure about his body as he's nearing 40. Castor (Maulik Pancholy of 30 Rock) suffers from self-esteem issues because he's not conventionally attractive (in other words, he does not have a six-pack) but overcompensates by being annoyingly opinionated. Leo (Britton Smith) is the peacemaker of the group who is also addicted to social media. Then there's the AirBnB host, Bernie (Bryan Batt of Mad Men, who steals the stage every time he's on it, which is not enough), a Gen X-er perturbed by all the vain young men around him.
As soon as the friends reunite, the shade comes fast and furious. Says Curtis to the group: "We always have each other because we're a family and family is forever." To which Castor remarks: "Just like herpes."
Between drinks, dancing, and lip syncing to Katy Perry and the Pussycat Dolls, the friends realize they may have outgrown each other. Friendship breakups are as painful and heartbreaking as romantic breakups, but they are so rarely dramatized. And unfortunately, To My Girls spends less time establishing the bond between why these millennials are friends and more on trading clever barbs — it is true that friends are allowed to be brutally honest with each other, but there is an odd lack of care and heart shown between the men. Which means when their conflicts come to a head, the gravity of the moment is lost. Witticism and audience laughter undercut every sensitive moment of bonding.
It's a shame because the script does have moments of insight about 2022 living, such as the one-dimensionality of social media, being fetishized on Tinder, and the generational differences among gay men. For instance, there is one scene where 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." That Curtis responds to that proclamation by hitting on his friend is a thread the play does not adequately resolve.
The characters that develop most in the play are Curtis and Castor. As Curtis, Johnson does admirably with a broadly written character who puts his own selfish needs ahead of his friends. Johnson's puppy-dog demeanor keeps you from being too angry at him (and explains why Castor and Leo are still friends with him).
To My Girls is truly Castor's play, and Pancholy is finally able to expand past being a supporting actor who is just there to throw out witty one-liners. Pancholy manages to be annoying, funny, and sweet at the same time. And when Castor is given room to be more introspective, he excels in delivering the material. Though he's well-suited in temperament, Pancholy may be too good-looking. When Castor talks about his body insecurities, it's hard to believe since Pancholy (while he doesn't have a six-pack) isn't exactly a schlub. Having a two-pack instead of a six-pack doesn't make you hideous, especially not in the fatphobic world of online dating.
It is ironic that for a play with such self-proclaimed progressive characters, the Black character, Leo, played by Smith in a grounded and subtle performance, is the least developed. Leo's function is to help Curtis and Castor along and comment on their antics, which gives his role a stereotypical overtone. The character deleting Instagram from his phone should signal a moment of growth, but it's so underwritten that it feels like an afterthought.
But under Stephen Brackett's direction, To My Girls does move quickly, with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Thanks to Lee's smart script, the characters in To My Girls are definitely a fun crew that you would want to have a drink with, even if you might not want to be friends with them.
Photo credit: Jay Armstrong Johnson and Maulik Pancholy in To My Girls. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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