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“Trolls” offers pleasant surprises; Elaine May has lost her comedic ear

The astonishing thing about the new musical “Trolls” is that it’s nowhere near as bad as you would think. Better yet, it’s often endearing and entertaining. That’s even more amazing because it’s got a clumsy book, a tired premise––middle-aged gay men gather to celebrate a dead friend in song and dance and bemoan getting older––and cringe-inducing plot manipulations.

What “Trolls” has going for it are some fun and quite good songs, a gentle and affectionate sense of humor and a thoroughgoing sweetness that in the end smooth out most of the rough edges. Moreover, it’s got a very talented cast that’s a pleasure to watch, even when the show is in jeopardy of collapsing around them.

Whether straight or gay, there is something that never really works about nostalgia on the stage––“Our Town” never worked for me––and “Trolls” has that kind of defensive gay pride that characterized plays of a decade ago or more that required statements and anthems that acknowledge that gay people have made contributions to the culture and so on and so forth. Ironically, given the current political climate, it’s not so far-fetched to be reminding the mainstream culture of that, though precious little of that milieu is likely to trickle down into the Actors’ Playhouse.

The show also works because the cast just gives a hundred percent to the material. At times reminiscent of “High Spirits” (the dead character comes back as a ghost) and “Follies” (old queens relive their disco glory days), there is a sense of life in the characters that remains compelling. There is the sadness of being middle-aged and marginalized in gay culture, the sense of loss as friends die and life changes all juxtaposed with a spirit that isn’t willing to lie down or go away. The show makes up in human truth what it may lack in polish—sometimes a worthwhile trade off.

The cast is great. Mark Baker, Albert Insinnia, Christian Whelan, James Van Treuren, Barry McNabb, Bram Heidingger, Dale Radunz and Brynn Neal are all excellent. Baker, Van Treuren and Whelan, in particular, find depth in their characters that is rare in a musical.

While Bill Dyer’s book is often wanting, his lyrics are bright and funny, and the music by Dick De Benedictis is a great combination of pastiche and classic musical theater tunes.

While not a “great” musical, “Trolls” is definitely worthwhile, and while I went in rolling my eyes, there were several moments when I found myself dabbing them. To paraphrase Noel Coward, the power of obvious sentiment is sometimes quite surprising.

Elaine May’s new little comedy excursion, “After the Night and the Music,” would be just the ticket… if it were 1967 and naughty sex comedies for a repressed nation were in vogue once again. In the vein of such light and forgettable comedies as “Any Wednesday,” May has cobbled together three short, ostensibly comic plays that, with the possible exception of the first piece about a lesbian learning to dance (“Curtain Raiser”), would make “The Love Boat” seem the height of sophisticated wit.

It’s actually astonishing that Manhattan Theatre Club, which had the discernment to produce “Doubt,” should so take leave of its senses to put this pandering bilge on the stage. Whatever facility May once had with comedy in her fabled career is nowhere in evidence here, and the evening is simply painful.

And enraging. In the second play in this theatrical death march, “Giving Up Smoking,” May indulges in the kind of institutionalized gay bashing that is the hallmark of sitcom writers. Suffice it to say that the gay boy lisps, pouts and likes to cry in front of “The Wizard of Oz.” Because May is incapable of writing a believable gay character, she defaults to stereotype to generate facile and hateful laughs. That May is blind to the naked hostility inherent in this kind of writing is disgusting and shameful.

But none of the other characters fare any better. The neurotic, divorced and desperate New York Jewish woman keeps complaining to the phone that doesn’t ring about the man who doesn’t call, in pale shades of a much better piece by a much better comedienne––Dorothy Parker’s “The Telephone.” The straight guy is a doofus, and the woman dying of cancer sounds like a Hallmark card writer, and while she is supposed to be the moral center of the piece, the cheap emotionalism reveals just how rotten that core is.

Individually, these people are annoying. Together they’re a crime against the theater.

The final piece is a torturous bit set on the Upper East Side. “Swing Time” is about middle-aged couples that get together for an evening of wife-swapping, and, as they say, chaos ensues. Does anyone really talk like this? Can a 40-minute play really seem this long? May’s fusty jokes were old in the Golden Age of Television, and suffering through them is excruciating, not to say derivative and sophomoric.

Despite the obstacles, the cast works gamely to reanimate this turkey corpse. J. Smith-Cameron appears in all three plays, and her undeniable charm makes it tolerable facing this particular stage all evening. She’s especially good as Gloria, the lesbian who is asked to dance in the first piece. Likewise Jeanine Berlin, Brian Kerwin and Jere Burns are such charming actors that they mitigate the pain of the script. Eddie Korbich as a nebbish who can cut a rug gives a lovely and well-structured performance—in the only decently written part in the whole evening.

“You know what real greatness is?” the character Charlie asks in “Merrily We Roll Along,” referring to pleasing audiences. “It’s knowing when to get off.”

Sadly, Elaine May never heard this show biz adage, and now it’s too late.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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