Can a play with the theatrical consistency of scrambled eggs still entertain?
Apparently yes. Proof positive is MCC Theater’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride, Matthew Lopez’s tribute to drag, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. In the play, straight father-to-be Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) trades in his hip-swiveling Elvis Presley impersonation for lip-syncing as hip-swishing Georgia McBride on the stage of a low-rent joint called Cleo’s.
Casey doesn’t transition to the titular (no pun intended) Georgia McBride all by his (or her) lonely. He’s more-than-ably assisted by dyed-in-the-Champagne-blonde-wig Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath), and Eddie (Wayne Duvall), Cleo’s cash-sniffing owner. He’s less eagerly helped by a trouble-making, alcoholic drag queen named Rexy (Keith Nobbs), which is short for Anorexia Nervosa. And he’s not assisted whatsoever by his financially worried wife, Jo (Afton Williamson), to whom he’s reluctant to confide his newfound career.
It’s the Casey-Jo marriage that provides the peg on which Lopez hangs his plot, but he doesn’t worry too much about logic or coherence. Sometimes he ignores the marital woes of the much-in-love couple for inordinate amounts of time. And before the play fades out he sentimentalizes their union.
He also asks the audience to believe that a smart woman like Jo wouldn’t be glad that her husband is bringing home additional bacon to their two-salary household, if only to pay their monthly rent on time to landlord-friend Jason (also Nobbs). Is Jo upset because Casey lied to her during her pregnancy? Only Lopez knows for sure.
Never mind. A great deal — if not all — is forgiven by virtue of the backdrop for the troubled marriage provided by Lopez’s celebration of drag’s valiance. When Tracy (who is Eddie’s cousin) arrives to transform Cleo’s into a drag destination, at first she puts Casey out of Elvis impersonation job and into bartending. Until the night Rexy gets too drunk to go on as Edith Piaf.
Then the immense fun starts. It may be cheap, but who said cheap entertainment can’t entertain? Definitely not Lopez; definitely not director Mike Donahue. Certainly not choreographer Paul McGill, set designer Donyale Werle, costume designer Anita Yavich (watch her work be up for awards), or wig-and-make-up designer Jason Hayes, lately of Harvey Fierstein’s Broadway play Casa Valentina.
They all show their impressive wares during a sequence in which Casey — reluctant to assume the Piaf persona (“Who the hell is Edith Piaf?,” he begs) — turns his fledgling appearance into an in-one, socko triumph. If this sounds familiar, there’s a reason: It’s a drag appropriation from Rose Louise Hovick’s transformation in Gypsy. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.
Later, velvety curtains drop and a lengthy drag montage begins. During it, “Georgia” and Tracy alternate their lip-synced reprises of country ditties and musical comedy favorites (and yes, Gypsy is honored). Did I mention this all takes place in Panama City, Florida? Forget whether the natives of the Florida panhandle are versed in Broadway hits, because what transpires is too much fun to question.
Also amusing are the innumerable cutting remarks the divas dart at one another. When Casey attempts to figure out his confession to Jo, Tracy says, “There will never be the right time to tell your wife you’re doing drag.” At another point, Rexy cries “Et tu, Brute” for big laughs. Rexy even seizes the chance to defend drag, labeling it “a protest.” The jeremiad isn’t delivered from atop a soapbox, it just sounds that way.
Given all the opportunities to show off what they can do, the cast members grab them like brass rings on a tchotchke-d merry-go-round. The most challenging role is, of course, Casey. And Brown, convincing as the loving husband of a loving, understanding, often-tested wife, completely and just as convincingly transforms into the slick, sleek Georgia.
McGrath’s Tracy is a model impersonation. He’s got all the mannerisms mastered by men who do drag — many more feminine than the mannerisms of women. Late in the action, when Casey visits Tracy’s out-of-drag self in the middle of the night, McGrath is touching as he and Brown lend a pertinent legitimacy to the script.
About Nobbs, the query is this: Is there anything he can’t do? His falling-down-drunk, oft-outraged Rexy is hilarious. But when he’s good-neighbor Jason, he’s down-to-earth likable. (What he’s doing backstage when changing from one character to the other? That must be something to see.) Duvall and Williamson do their utmost to not let the team down. In fact, before the rigmarole ends, they get to join a pelvis-working chorus line created by McGill.
(N.B.: So far it looks as if no group is protesting the casting of Georgia McBride, which involves no actual drag queens. Who can say there won’t be?)
The Legend of Georgia McBride was commissioned by San Diego’s Old Globe and developed and originally produced at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Director Donahue has taken advantage of the process and found all sorts of surprises — as has everyone working with him. There’s a moment when Tracy, wearing a spiked tiara, enters through a door boasting many long shiny strips. It’s only a throwaway couple of seconds, but it sure is rib-tickling.