Friday, March 19, 2010

Glee Club Revisited

I saw Blue Coyote's Glee Club last night, making it the third time I had seen the piece. It made my "Top Ten" list for 2009 and, although it's ineligible for being on this year's list (no repeats, alas), I was reminded of why it's up there.

Although I originally wrote about the show obliquely as to avoid spoilers (and the very act of talking about the heart of the play would be offering spoilers), I don't believe I will do so this time around, since I'd like to finally take some time to so write candidly about the show. So be forewarned, this entry not only contains spoilers, but could very well be seen as One Big Spoiler.

It's a show that is very funny, grim and original. I honestly can't think of any other show I've seen like it.

Yes, Glee Club, written by Matthew Freeman and directed by Kyle Ancowitz, is about a glee club. There's more to it than that obviously, but we'll discuss that later. Its members are amateurs in every sense of the word. Yes, we find out (at the end) that they're competent singers. But beyond their ability to carry a tune, they are about as unprofessional as a group like this could be.

Most of them would clearly rather be doing anything else except singing (yes, one of them has a good excuse: he's going through a hateful divorce, so he has other things on his mind). None of the men like each other. Hell, they can't even be bothered to feign civility. You know you're dealing with a contemptible group when the club's token psychopath (and possible mass murderer) is the most appealing character.

For such middling talents, most of the members of the club act like divas about to give the performance of a lifetime.

Which brings us to the performance in question they're rehearsing for: they're preparing to sing a song (yes, apparently only one) at a nursing home, where the glee club's oldest alumnus and sole benefactor resides. In my youth, I've sang in choral groups, and have performed many times for residents of nursing homes, and I can assure you: the audience in those gigs don't care too much if you're on key or not. They're often just grateful to be given some sort of outside entertainment that breaks up their otherwise monotonous days.

The club's best singer, Hank (Tom Staggs), shows up late. He tries to sing the solo. He fails. Something's off. Then, he drops a bomb on the rest of the group: he's a recovering alcoholic and just started the path to sobriety.

Apparently Hank can no longer sing now that he's on the wagon, which dismays almost everyone else in the group (except for Matthew Trumbull's Stan, the only genuinely supportive member of the club; and Steven Burns' Paul, the previously-mentioned psycho, who's too caught up in thinking about dismembering bodies than whatever drama is going on in the room). Their responses range from passive-aggressive to outright hostile and ghoulish (they concoct a plot to slip booze in Hank's coffee).

The conductor and leader of the glee club, Ben (a delightfully haggard and spastic Stephen Speights), plays lip service to being supportive of Hank and his decision to get sober, but it's painfully clear he's disappointed with Hank's timing. After all, couldn't he have discussed this with the group? Couldn't he have just waited a couple days after their most important gig to go on the wagon? But it's great, great that he's kicked such a destructive habit! The timing's terrible, and it may be a bit selfish, but it's great!

The stakes for the characters are staggeringly low. Yet they act as if their lives depend on this performance. Or rather, they act as if Hank's life depends on it. (Though, even if this were a performance at Carnegie Hall, would their behavior be any less abhorrent?)

Eventually, Hank gives into the wishes of his fellow glee club members and downs a bottle of vodka. Drunk out of his mind (and barely able to stay standing), the play ends with the group singing the song, which is quite upbeat and hummable. We're reasonably certain that the gig will be a success, and that Hank's life will spiral further and further down. Apparently the group, Hank included, believes this is a justifiable sacrifice.

So. Is this a comedy or a tragedy? What does it sound like to you? What makes Glee Club slyly deceptive (and palatable) is that a.) it is very, very funny, b.) it ends with the peppiest of peppy songs, and c.) its characters are written very broadly. They feel like characters from a sitcom, albeit one that allows a lot of swearing.

I actually don't mean that critically. That the characters are more or less caricatures lulls you into a false comfort level, where your natural instinct is to laugh (rather than to be appalled). Freeman and Ancowitz are clearly having fun delivering very dark subject matter in such a light package.

Glee Club is a play that deals with the almost universal desires to be accepted (even when the group in question is unworthy of your attention), to have some sort of success in show business (no matter how small or pathetic), and to be given instant gratification. Although we all know you can't "postpone" sobriety, and whatever hindrances Hank has in his abilities are only temporary, what matters is he delivers that weekend.

Apparently Hank has all these poisoned desires just as much as his fellow club members. Either that, or he realizes that with friends like these, who needs a reason to live?

Glee Club is playing at the Access Theater on 380 Broadway until April 3. Click here for tickets.

Laughing at those less fortunate than me,

James "Charitable" Comtois

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