Jay Armstrong Johnson and Maulik Pancholy in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.
First off, I know, I know, I am soooo late posting this review, and I feel terrible about it. I do really try to be that reviewer who always posts some sort of review of a play in a timely manner, in return for these wonderfully appreciated press tickets I am given. As I do feel so blessed. So here it is, a review of a show that, unfortunately has already closed. Please forgive me for this tardiness, but after a solidly overscheduled few weeks in New York City in that month leading up to the Tony deadline, my priorities were placed in the writing of reviews for all those shows that were nominated for an award this season, especially the Outer Critics Circle Awards (which I am so lucky to be a voting member of) and, most naturally, the Tony Awards. To My Girls, which ran at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway theatre, was not one of those shows, and sorta rightly so I might add, so it kept getting put to the bottom of the stack of Playbills under all those other shows that I needed and wanted to get to before this one.
I must also admit that it belonged at the bottom because even though the play, written by JC Lee (HBO’s Girls; Looking) uses an old standardized formula; the one that brings together a pack of old friends and supplies them with an abundance of alcohol and accussations – much like the much stronger (although dated) Boys in the Band back in 1968 (and in the stellar revival in 2018), the end result that landed on the Tony Kiser Theater stage just never finds its way to bring much new breathe or pride to the genre, nor to that well-designed living room where the play takes place. It’s a sad truth, and one that I am quite disappointed by, no matter how many margaritas are served up to those young cute men in Palm Springs.
Strutting forth with ‘millennial angst’ written in bold letters across its chest, To My Girls sashays in with promise, delivering forth a well manufactured diverse group of 30-something gay friends reuniting in Palm Springs after the COVID lockdown of 2020. And it turns out that it is exactly how I pictured it would be, even with knowing so very little about what would actually happen in the play. The set-up is current, stereotypical, yet somehow solid and safe, with Curtis, portrayed by the talented and pretty Jay Armstrong Johnson (Encores’ A Chorus Line), standing proudly at the center of this sordidly snarky tale. He has been cast as the annoyingly insecure Instagram influencer who brainstormed this holiday get-together out of an almost unconscious abject need for connection. Or so he says. It might be adoration more than anything, but he knowingly is desperate for his ‘girls’ to gather around him, almost narcissitically, as a way to feel the love, and for them all to feel connected to one another once again. We feel that authentically, but it is also clear that his, and all of their self-esteem issues, just keep getting in the way of actual engagement. It flaunts itself, this lacking of self-awareness or knowledge, making them all spiral and lash out a little bit more with each drink served. No surprises so far.
Handsome Curtis is forever used to being the central light of the group. He is the pretty one who always gets what he wants when he wants it, especially with this group of friends, including the spot light. But lately, it hasn’t been working out the way he thinks it should. He’s questioning his validity and vitality, causing him to sometimes selfishly act out (or has he always?) as he tries unsuccessfully to deal with the fact that he is getting older. He is living and breathing in a gay world that (he believes) only values youth and beauty. He may be right about these assumptions, because arriving with him, present and struggling with his own brand of self-esteem issues, is Castor, solidly portrayed by the always engaging (and equally handsome) Maulik Pancholy (George Street Playhouse’s Fully Committed). Castor definitely has packed his under-valued belief system in his bag, alongside his protective coat of arms, overcompensating at every chance he has by stating off-putting opinions or by standing up and against something or anything that will distinguish himself from the rest. It’s quite desperate and needy, and he is not alone in that syndrome.
Leo, the friend who has flown in from NYC to be rejoin this girl band of gay boys, strongly portrayed by Britton Smith (Broadway’s Be More Chill; Shuffle Along) also has a lot to say about everyone and everything. The ironic part of it all is that the playwright, while trying so hard to be progressive and inclusive, hasn’t really found his way into making Leo, the Black character, a fully developed and important character in the mix. He is more of a side-lined commentator than an actual participant, and almost directly after the scene when Curtis does and says something unforgivable to Leo, the moment is forgotten, pushed out of the way, and Curtis, as he is in this play’s entirety, is forgiven, hugged, and danced off into the sunset together in a quick blurred ending that left me utterly amazed, and angry that he got away with it all. What the…?
But before that mess even gets started, the playwright, one by one, checks all the “important issue” boxes with a vengeance, with Leo striking a chord in all the arenas that Castor hasn’t either gotten around to or is not for him to say. It’s almost like a quick coles note lecture of all of the problems with gay culture, delivered in short snappy moments of dialogue that almost resemble real life, but not quite. Between the three of them, they systematically cover almost every current ‘problem’ issue that could be said by these young and somewhat damaged souls, whether we really want to hear from them or not.