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The Legend of Georgia McBride

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Dave Thomas Brown, Matt McGrath, and Keith Nobbs
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is not an Edith Piaf anyone has ever seen before, or for that matter one anyone would recognize. No poise, no grace, no luminance—in fact, the slumped shoulders, the tucked chin, and the spread legs resemble a linebacker more than they do the great chanteuse. But give her a few minutes to get her bearings, find her rhythm, and realize that pounding one fist into the other palm doesn't need to be like jackhammering a sidewalk. Because once she does, well, you may as well be toasting the real deal. Okay, okay, not quite. But close enough. And, at least in this point in Matthew Lopez's sparkling comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production, "close enough" is all that matters.

For this Piaf is not a woman at all, but a man, and—what, not surprising for a play set in modern-day Florida? Okay, but this is not exactly your standard would-be-queen-comes-into-herself show: Here, the once-and-future Piaf, aka the Georgia of the title, is actually a straight man who has no interest in donning a dress, let alone the myriad other associated accoutrements that are best applied from the inside out. That makes this play, about as far as is imaginable from Lopez's previous New York effort, The Whipping Man, unusually complex and fascinating, as well as an attractive twist on the classic theatrical journey toward discovering oneself.

Not that Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) acknowledges such a need at first, although he does already hide behind an identity in scraping out a living: Elvis Presley's. Eking out a living for himself and his gorgeous wife, Jo (Afton Williamson), is not easy in rural Florida, though: They're about to be kicked out of their apartment for bouncing their rent check twice in a row and, worse yet, Jo has just announced that they'll both be having a baby. Casey's brand-spanking-new white jumpsuit, burbling baritone, and innate sense of showmanship mean nothing if the customers don't show up, and in the sub-dive bar called Cleo's in which Casey plies his shtick, they don't.

Afton Williamson and Dave Thomas Brown
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's no great shock that Cleo's owner, Eddie (Wayne Duvall), plans to fire Casey and replace him with his cousin, Bobby; what's more startling, to Eddie above all, is that when Bobby arrives it's in he personage of the bobbed-haired Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath). Casey is able to stay on as a bartender, but when Tracy's partner, Rexy (short for Anorexia Nervosa, and played by Keith Nobbs), the living embodiment of a hot mess, collapses in a vodka-flooded stupor and can't go on, guess who the emergency, you'll-do-it-or-you're-fired replacement has to be?

Casey's debut as Piaf goes just well enough to earn him a second night, then a third, with appearance more refined in looks, manner, and presence than the one before. You may not believe that Casey is Piaf—really, you're barely supposed to—but you accept what you have to: that he's unlocking something within himself that he couldn't find either playing football or acting and singing any other way (his biggest triumph: a high-school turn as Sweeney Todd). That inner transformation surges through his impersonation to make Casey someone worthy of being a Cleo's headliner and lip-syncing and dancing as the kind of person he's never, ever wanted to be.

As it progresses, The Legend of Georgia McBride examines how Casey unearths his ideal drag persona as a country-western diva, how his lies to Jo about the source of their newfound wealth imperil their relationship, and, perhaps most intriguing, whether he (or any straight man) can claim the authenticity in the art that someone like Rexy has claimed from birth. If Lopez takes you few places unexpected, he brings such a luscious, biting wit to it all that the patina of freshness is unmistakable throughout.

The old-fashioned comedy. Jo: "Casey, we are so not ready to have a baby." Casey: "If we're ready to make one, we're ready to have one." Jo: "Any 14-year-old girl will tell you that is not true."

The much-anticipated bitchiness. Rexy, upon glimpsing Cleo's for the first time: "Anne Frank wouldda said 'no thank you' to this place. Couldn't we try Atlanta again?" Tracy: "Girl, the Civil War was child's play compared to the bridges you left burning up there."

The political barbs. Eddie: "Did either of you order a bubble machine?" Tracy: "Is it here?!?" Eddie: "It's in my office. You charged it to my credit card?" Tracy: "Well, it's not like my card was gonna work. I got a good price for it on eBay. Only used once at a Ted Cruz fundraiser."

You get the idea. Donyale Werle's lovably seedy set, which counts both on and backstage at Eddie's as well as an apartment barely half a step removed from a trailer park, and Ben Stanton's lights create a fine atmosphere against which all this can unfold. Particularly crucial are Anita Yavich's wonderfully crazy, decade-straddling and taste-defying costumes, and Jason Hayes's uproarious wigs and makeup. They provide lively underscoring for the play's central conflict for Casey: At what point does something outrageously fake actually become more real than the thing it parodies?

Brown is superb as Casey, letting us see both his considerable natural masculinity as well as the sensitivity that develops only slowly; he casts a stunning contrast between the man offstage and the woman on that forcefully powers the somewhat improbable plot. McGrath gives a more traditional and recognizable drag performance, but it's an expert one, layered with agony, rage, and resourcefulness that suggests just how much (or, rather, how little) Tracy ever allows to reach the surface. Williamson and Duvall have more limited opportunities to shine as Jo and Eddie, but nonetheless make them full-bodied people who can stand formidably against the more flamboyant characters. Though Nobbs delivers an affecting late-show speech detailing Rexy's tortured adolescence, he's a bit broad in the rest of the role, and only intermittently convincing as Casey's redneck landlord (Lopez calls for the doubling, but it's heavily strained)

The evening's only real stumbles occur during the moments that shows of this nature usually shine most brightly. Once Georgia is established, Lopez injects a lengthy montage covering six months of her evolution from novice to star, alternating her numbers with selections from Tracy's own rickety catalog. But the segment is overlong, and neither insightful nor eye-poppingly absurd. Director Mike Donahue and choreographer Paul McGill get the pacing and the mood right every other time, but rather than leaning lean and funny, they go big and end up going through the motions, as if trusting that the scene's novelty is sufficient.

The rest of The Legend of Georgia McBride, however, stresses that novelty will only get you so far, and that the real seed of success is the truth within. But, like Casey, the play is able to survive—and even thrive—in spite of briefly mistaking external fiction for internal fact. And as long as Lopez is in tune with that, which he is most of the time, his play borders on legendary fun.

The Legend of Georgia McBride
Through October 4
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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