Playwright Matthew Lopez channels Tennessee Williams in a drama about drag queens including one who could be straight out of “Sweet Bird of Youth”
If Tennessee Williams were alive and writing today, he might come up with a character like Miss Tracy, who isn’t but should be the title character in Matthew Lopez’s new play, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.
If Tennessee Williams were alive and writing a character like Miss Tracy, he would, of course, be repeating himself since he already wrote this character when he created Alexandra Del Lago, the lead female in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
The big difference is that Miss Tracy is a drag queen and Alexandra Del Lago is a woman, not that anyone let Geraldine Page in on that secret. In the film version of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Page plays the faded movie star as if she were a transvestite, and a very flamboyant and demanding transvestite at that.
I’ve always wondered if Page replicated her stage portrayal or brought it down a notch for the camera. Whatever, Matt McGrath as Miss Tracy takes Page’s Alexandra and matches her twitch for twitch, roll for roll of the eye balls. He’s even better at batting an errant strand of hair off his forehead.
Williams never did tell us much about the movie that caused Alexandra to flee Hollywood and travel incognito as the Princess Kosmonopolis. (Lopez, among other things, can’t compete with Williams when it comes to drag names.) In Robert Zemeckis‘ “Death Becomes Her,” a character played by Meryl Streep offers us a glimpse of a Broadway musical, “Sweet Bird,” that’s supposed to be the musical version of the Williams melodrama. Meryl dances on a circular banquette in the middle of a hotel lobby, surrounded by bellboys. It’s a funny send-up.
In “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” McGrath and Lopez offer something better: Miss Tracy lip syncs to a pastiche of Broadway lyrics that run the gamut from “West Side Story” to “Follies” and several shows not written by Stephen Sondheim to comprise a theater version of “No More Wire Hangers!” one-liners.
“George McBride” doesn’t have much more up its many prosthetics than a desire to entertain. But Lopez does try to put transvestism at the heart of the gay rights movement. Unfortunately, he puts that questionable rewriting of history — yes, there was a vital gay-rights movement before Stonewall — into the mouth of Miss Tracy’s sidekick, Miss Rexy (Keith Nobbs), who probably shouldn’t be given that job since he’s a serious substance abuser and, for a drag queen, rather heavy-footed.
The other problem is that the title character isn’t Miss Tracy but Dave Thomas Brown’s Georgia McBride, who isn’t a flamboyant drag queen. Unlike Miss Tracy or Miss Rexy, Brown actually looks and acts like a real woman on stage, and never more so than when the actor eschews the lip-syncing to do his own vocals.
Brown begins as a lackluster Elvis impersonator named Casey with a pregnant wife (Afton Williamson). When he’s demoted to bartender and his club plans to bring in drag acts to pump up the business, it’s obvious from Brown’s finely chiseled porcelain features and lithe dancer’s body (much exposed) that he’s going to look absolutely fab in heels and a mini.
“Georgia McBride” requires a big leap from masculine to feminine that Brown, going from Casey to Georgia, doesn’t quite make under the direction of Mike Donahue.
It’s a transformation, like Eliza Doolittle’s, that shouldn’t be so obvious from the get-go. Nor should we cringe when Miss Rexy overdoses and Miss Tracy turns into Mama Rose in “Gypsy” to push the reluctant Casey/Georgia into the spotlight.
Lopez knows how to borrow from Tennessee Williams. Now he needs to learn how to borrow better from Arthur Laurents.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is presented by MCC, and runs through Oct. 4.
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