The Young Ladies Of
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 27, 2007
Taylor Mac's father's favorite movie was Carousel (the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical). Robert Mac Bowyer, Taylor's dad, died when Taylor was four years old, and this snippet of trivia is almost all that Taylor knows about him. The Young Ladies Of, which begins—appropriately enough, under the circumstances, to the strains of "The Carousel Waltz"—is about Taylor's attempts to learn more about his father, and his search for authentic connection with him.
His way in is provided serendipitously by Taylor's mom, who, a few years ago, shipped to Taylor boxes of old letters that she'd found while cleaning her garage. The letters, it turned out, where written in 1968, and they were from hundreds of young Australian women who had answered an advertisement that Taylor's dad had placed, looking for company during leave from his tour of duty in Vietnam.
Taylor pounces on the letters greedily, certain that he will discover some of the elusive Robert Mac Bowyer buried within them. The Carousel-as-favorite-film is, presumably, one of the things he learns; but alas not much else. This is, finally, a play about assumptions, and how to live with them, and how to break free of them. The stated objective turns into a platform from which playwright/actor/creator Mac builds a couple of lovely, simultaneous performance art works: one an engaging sort-of mystery in which Mac shows us how he plumbed the depths of these letters searching for (but never really finding) clues about his dad (this part of the show is dazzlingly physical and visceral, thanks to inventive set design by David Evans Morris and fearless staging by director Tracy Trevett and movement consultant Alexandra Beller). The other is a compelling, touching meditation on the women who answered Robert Mac Bowyer's ad—the young ladies of the play's title, who are depicted here thoughtfully and affectingly as equal parts courageous, lonely, and quixotic.
Mac is a spectacularly accomplished performer, and his ability to portray himself and hundreds of sketchily-drawn women whom he will never meet, more or less at the same time, is a remarkable feat on its own. That he's able to convey the emotional depth of so many of these women makes The Young Ladies Of even more extraordinary.
Less effective are some of the performance art-y trappings that Mac includes in his show, such as a slide show of photos comparing himself to his dad (far-out drag diva vs. straight-as-an-arrow ex-Army man; hardly a fair match-up). At the end of the show, Mac composes his own answer to his father's long-ago advertisement, and the exercise is at once painfully personal and brazenly unfair: Mac seems to want his dad and his dad's family to represent all the ugly "Red State" values that he detests, but—performing in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis drag, worn as a Kabuki mask and costume over a bra-cum-thong—he's clearly preaching to the converted here.
I found it interesting that Mac never even explored the idea that his dad had told all these strange women that his favorite film was a movie with show tunes in it. Perhaps they would have had more in common than he suspects.
But objectivity isn't what's important in The Young Ladies Of, which emerges most significantly as a grand showcase for this brave and constantly morphing/evolving pastiche artist. There's also a touching and lovely play about sad, quietly desperate women in here, and that alone is worth your time and attention.