Arts

‘Which Way to the Stage’ Review: Theater Buddies, With Claws Out

If you have ever fantasized about casting your favorite musical or ranked the actresses who have played Mrs. Lovett, chances are you will be familiar with Jeff and Judy. You might even be them.

We first meet the two besties by the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theater. They are waiting, Playbills at the ready, for Idina Menzel — this is 2015, when Menzel was still headlining “If/Then” and stars occasionally met with fans after a performance (an activity now curtailed 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 MCC Theater, is off, its needle 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 a performance by my mother in the Temple Beth Israel talent show,” Judy says.

You might have sussed out by now that Judy is straight and Jeff is gay, and both have a way with quips.

Admittedly this is a fairly conventional setup, but Nogueira spins zippy fun out of it, the theater references are on point, and the director, Mike Donahue, imparts a nice screwball-comedy pace. Then come the variations on the theme.

Michelle Veintimilla, from far left, Evan Todd and Sas Goldberg at a drag performance by Max Jenkins’s character, Jeff.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times

The first is that, somewhat predictably, Judy and Jeff are actors themselves — though she makes a living as a real estate agent while he is a Crunch instructor with a drag gig on the side.

We also gradually realize that their friendship is heavy with barely contained resentment. Jeff lectures Judy when she uses a slur for gay men, only to casually dropdemeaning words for women. After she takes off during his drag tribute to Menzel, a wounded Jeff demands to know what she thought of his act. It is obvious the last thing he wants is an honest opinion, but he pressures Judy anyway.

“Which Way to the Stage” is about the performances people put on for themselves, their friends, family and potential loved ones, as well as the identities they hide behind. (Nogueira has experience both as a writer and an actor, with acting credits on such shows as “The Vampire Diaries” and the Starz series “Hightown.”)

This tension between who we are, who we think we are and the personas we project is especially fraught for actors, and it weighs heavily on Jeff and Judy. (Goldberg, a standout in “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” and “Significant Other,” excels at suggesting hurt underneath sarcasm.) The veiled animosity between the two is brought to a head when they meet the handsome Mark (Evan Todd), who has the easygoing, insouciant charm of a born star — or at least someone who can live off his acting.

Under its avalanche of knowing jokes, “Which Way to the Stage” has serious matters on its mind, including the undercurrent of homophobia and misogyny that can suffuse the relationship between straight women and gay men. Nogueira’s writing is at its best when she lets anger bubble to the surface, but like Jeff and Judy with theater, it seems as if she can’t quite decide whether her play is, at heart, about love or cynicism.

“Which Way to the Stage” builds up to a conflagration that is the equivalent of an 11 o’clock number. But like many musicals, the show doesn’t know what to do with itself afterward, so it ends big with a move that feels like a Hail Mary pass. The attempt is fun to watch, but it also comes up short.

Which Way to the Stage
Through May 22 at MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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