“Write what you know.” That eternal catchphrase of creative-writing teachers is generally good advice, but it can also lead to narcissism—not to mention the omnipresence of aging, sexually conflicted college professor protagonists. Same goes for drama: Ever since Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, many playwrights have tackled the subject of writing a play, and the results are frequently about as interesting as watching videos of someone else’s vacation.
But Mauckingbird Theatre Company delicately pulls self-reference off with an irresistible production of Jeff Bowen’s and Hunter Bell’s appealingly small self-referential musical [title of show], a clever, postmodern-yet-fun little show about two gay guys, their gal pals and the Broadway dream. Overlook the gimmicky title and the above use of “postmodern”: It’s nearly impossible to dislike.
Not that I didn’t try. The night I attended could have put anyone in a foul mood, the wind chill teetering between positive and negative and Center City covered in grimy snow. The last place I wanted to be was the dingy Upstairs at the Adrienne Theatre, which has all the charm of a 24-hour bar at a rural airport. But even as melted snow puddled around my feet, my mood began to thaw.
Set in New York, title focuses on twentysomething best friends Hunter (Michael Philip O’Brien) and Jeff (Ben Dibble), musical-theater geeks who dream of creating and starring in a smash Broadway hit. (Meta note: title’s music and lyrics are by Jeff Bowen, book by Hunter Bell.) As luck would have it, the New York Musical Theatre Festival is accepting submissions of new work, and the friends are certain the festival could be their big break. (Meta note: title in fact premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, with Bowen and Bell in the lead roles.)
But there’s one thing standing between them and their dream: They don’t actually have a show, nor any idea what to write about, and the deadline is three weeks away. “What if the first scene is just us talking about what to write?” Hunter asks. Pressed for time (and apparently having read Wonder Boys a couple of times), they start writing “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical,” with help from actress pals Susan (Kate Brennan) and Heidi (Kim Carson).
Title manages to make this work, partly because of Bell’s and Bowen’s writing, which is spry, very funny and musically satisfying. There’s a carefully constructed confluence of the characters’ onstage creative process and the show itself—a song is abruptly interrupted by an argument about whether the lyrics rhyme, for example, and when Hunter wonders aloud if a scene is running too long the stage suddenly goes black.
It’s hard to imagine title receiving a better production than the easygoing, natural one it gets from Mauckingbird artistic director Peter Reynolds. Despite the obvious contrivances, nothing feels too forced or contrived, and the tiny Upstairs space is used thoughtfully, the sense of community between characters spilling into the audience.
Having a spectacular cast also doesn’t hurt—with one solitary solo and a dearth of scene-stealing moments, title isn’t a star vehicle. What it demands is a cohesive, exuberant ensemble, which is exactly what this unusually talented group delivers. O’Brien is a bipolar tornado as Hunter, excitable and prone to outbursts. O’Brien’s Hunter wears his passions on his sleeve, unlike his level-headed friend. Dibble’s Jeff is more practical, with the exception of an obsession with grammar that is a rare source of tension between the friends.
O’Brien and Dibble are both Barrymore winners and among the city’s most popular leading men, and they shine as a duo. They harmonize beautifully both in the literal, musical sense and in their natural rapport onstage. They don’t just perform well together, they seem to genuinely like each other, and together they glow with a welcome sense of camaraderie.
Since 2008, Mauckingbird has been on a mission to present shows that bring LGBTQ issues to the forefront; they’ve become known for presenting classic plays ( Hedda Gabler , Romeo and Juliet and The Misanthrope , among others) with the gender of one of the leads swapped. But title goes about it a bit more subtly. Unlike most plays with gay characters, the musical has no gay themes or political viewpoint. Hunter and Jeff are both gay, but they aren’t a couple, and the general feel about this is “...and?” Hunter’s and Jeff’s sexual orientation is part of who they are, but doesn’t dominate their identities.
Hunter says at one point, “I want there to be substance, not just fluff—not that there’s anything wrong with fluff!—but I want to strive for something that makes people really pay attention.” If the parallels between the creators and their onstage incarnations is as one-to-one as the play suggests, then they fell a bit short on that point: The play is tons of fun and the music is catchy, but “substantial” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. It is, though, easily the season’s best musical thus far.
Through Jan. 30. $25. The Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. 215.923.8909. mauckingbird.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9