If you’ve ever fantasized about hosting your favorite musical or ranking the actresses who have played Mrs. Lovett, chances are you’re familiar with Jeff and Judy. You could even be them.
We first meet the two best friends at the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theater. They’re waiting, Playbills ready, for Idina Menzel: This is 2015, when Menzel was still headlining “If/Then” and stars would occasionally meet fans after a performance (an activity now restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic).
Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins) are arguing over the respective merits of Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in “Gypsy,” and Ana Nogueira’s “Which Way to the Stage,” at the MCC Theater, is off, her needle It’s already close to the red zone. At least Jeff and Judy agree on one thing: either of those two stars is better than the one they refer to simply as “Imelda” (Staunton, unless Marcos also appeared in “Gypsy”). “Like a caricature of a caricature of my mom’s performance at the Temple Beth Israel talent show,” says Judy.
You may have already noticed that Judy is straight and Jeff is gay, and they both have a knack for jokes.
Admittedly, this is a fairly conventional setup, but Nogueira puts a fun spin on it, the theatrical references are spot on, and the director, Mike Donahue, imparts a nice pacing of offbeat comedy. Then come the variations on the theme.
The first is that, unsurprisingly, Judy and Jeff are also actors, although she makes a living as a real estate agent while he is a Crunch instructor with a side drag job.
We also gradually realize that their friendship is fraught with barely contained resentment. Jeff lectures Judy when she uses a slur for gay men, only to casually drop Denigrating words for women. After she leaves during her drag tribute to Menzel, a hurt Jeff demands to know what she thinks of her performance. It’s obvious that the last thing he wants is an honest opinion, but he pushes Judy anyway.
“Which Way to the Stage” is about the performances that people put on for themselves, their friends, family, and potential loved ones, as well as the identities behind which they hide. (Nogueira has experience as both a writer and an actor, with acting credits on shows like “The Vampire Diaries” and the Starz series “Hightown.”)
This tension between who we are, who we think we are, and the people we project is especially tense for actors, and it weighs heavily on Jeff and Judy. (Goldberg, a standout on “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” and “Significant Other,” excels at suggesting pain beneath the sarcasm.) The veiled animosity between the two comes to a head when they meet the handsome Mark (Evan Todd), who has the easy-going charm of a born star, or at least someone who can make a living from his acting.
Beneath its avalanche of wise jokes, “Which Way to the Stage” has serious issues on its mind, including the undercurrents of homophobia and misogyny that can pervade the relationship between straight women and gay men. Nogueira’s writing is best when she lets anger bubble to the surface, but like Jeff and Judy with the theater, she can’t seem to decide if her play is, at its core, about love or love. the cynicism
“Which Way to the Stage” turns into a conflagration equivalent to an 11 o’clock number. But like many musicals, the show doesn’t know what to do next, so it ends on a grand note with a move that feels like a Hail Mary pass. The attempt is fun to watch, but it also falls short.
which way to the stage
Through May 22 at the MCC Theatre, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes.