Tonylust: The Broadway Bloodbath of 2006
nytheatre.com review by Charles Battersby
April 23, 2005
Last year, playwright David Bell treated theatre nerds to a delicious satire of the theatre community, with his Bernadette and the Butcher of Broadway, which chronicled the behind-the-scenes manipulations of producers, theatre critics, and gossip columnists.
Although Tonylust is billed as a sequel, it has an entirely different story and only a couple of returning characters. There's definitely a similar feel to both shows, but Bernadette… fans shouldn't expect a return of the Ben Brantley vs. Michael Riedel war in Tonylust, nor does Bernadette Peters play any significant role here.
Tonylust is about the battle between intellectual Broadway and big-dumb-flashy Broadway. The latter is represented by producer Grace Pushkin (Wynne Anders), who is mounting a glitzy musical adaptation of the movie Tootsie. Smart Broadway’s champion is Leslie J. McMahon (Ellen Reilly) who’s producing a pretentious Edward Albee musical with music by Phillip Glass. Who will win the Tony for best new musical? Well, the audience determines that. At the end of the show, the audience is given ballots to vote for which show will win, thus determining which character will deliver an acceptance speech as the show’s final scene. Persons who hate both glitz and pretension are given a third (unseen) option in the form of a John Cougar Mellencamp “jukebox musical.”
The story comes across as a little flimsy, occasionally slowing down when the villains spend time outlining their plot. The audience interaction at the end deprives the playwright the chance to take a final shot at the dumbing down of Broadway as well. (For the record, at the performance attended, the Albee musical won.)
On the other hand, David Bell excels with witty, biting dialogue, and there are some great one-liners here, such as "This isn't America, This is New York City!" and "There's only so many people who'll pay for smart theatre…”
There are plenty of shots taken at theatre celebs here, too. The lovely Ms. Chenoweth is often referred to as a crystal meth addict, and the hunky (allegedly) hetero Hugh Jackman is accused of leaving his Tony in the bathroom at Splash bar. Eric Idle and the Spamalotians are slammed as well, and even NY1's Roma Torre isn't safe. Before the show even starts, there're some theatre in-jokes, such as the domineering stage manager who quiets the crowd before the show, and openly screams for the cast to take positions (er, hopefully that was part of the show).
Performances are excellent. Ellen Reilly is wonderful as the award-obsessed producer and Ron Bopst is hysterical as the Euro-trash Veep van der Bender, who does a great job when performing a native Dutch folk dance while wearing a dirndl. There’s also Brett Douglas as the bitchy Morgan Rydell; he also briefly plays Carol Channing too (there’s a nifty little zinger fired at Ms. Channing, about her rapping during last year’s Tony Awards; this time she does so without LL Cool J's accompaniment).
Christopher Borg's direction is frenetic. The material demands a zany energetic style of performance, and Borg certainly keeps the cast running on all cylinders.
One of the best elements of Bernadette… was the prop design. Every single item was made out of poster-board, with cartoony images of the prop drawn on it. This gag returns in Tonylust. Everything from phones to food to champagne is depicted in 2-D form. This allows for some sight gags, such as a champagne glass that’s painted to look full on one side, and empty on the other side, allowing the performers to “drink” their beverages.
Set pieces are hard to come by here, since the show is staged on the Duplex’s tiny cabaret stage. The closest to an actual set piece is a shelf full of Tonys upstage. There are also a pair of posterboard cutouts of TV screens downstage, so, when actors stand behind the cutouts, they appear to be on TV. Later on, a screen is pulled over one “TV”, then lit from behind so that the performer’s shadow is projected on the screen.
Tonylust is obviously not something for Joe Everyman; it's intended for hardcore theatre devotees. While it will certainly hit its mark there, more casual theatre-goers might find that it lacks conventional dramatic force. Given that it’s being performed at the Duplex, Tonylust shouldn’t have trouble finding it’s target audience.