Preparing for a night of escapism at the theater is, well, it’s like a roller coaster, really. On your way to the theatre, when you’re preparing yourself for a night of silliness, you’re climbing into the car and buckling up. Then you’re in your seat and you’re on the way up that first lift hill, the chainlift clank-clank-clanking. The houselights go down, and you’re over that first hill and with any luck, it’ll be a wild but painless path back to the station.
Richard Bean’s The Nap, now playing in a production on Broadway at the Friedman, is a deliciously energetic and mostly very funny play. That being said, it’s a bit like the Cyclone down in Coney Island. The ride home isn’t always smooth or easy. And that clunkiness doesn’t always work in its favor.
Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer, making the most of a play where he just has to be sexy and straight) is a rising snooker star. He and his father, Bobby (John Ellison Conlee, hilariously louche) are preparing him for the World Snooker Championship, which, for some reason, happens every year in the illustrious working class town Sheffield, England. They receive a visit from two officers, Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind) and Mohammad Butt (Bhavesh Patel). Mohammad is an Integrity Officer for the International Centre for Sport Security, and Eleanor is his cop companion. They’re there to make sure Dylan doesn’t get sucked into the global betting crime world and to make sure Dylan won’t compromise the integrity of the noble game.
Of course, he won’t, he insists! We know this is true because he’s handsome and straight and mentioned how the game is his life earlier! And yet, he does get sucked in. How he gets lured into the underbelly of the snooker world is a treat, so I won’t spoil, but it does have to do a hell of a lot with former gangster and now beauty salon magnate, Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings).
Waxy Bush is Dylan’s sponsor. Dylan’s mom (Johanna Day, in a wild performance) sold Waxy insider information that Dylan would purposely gum up his semi-final match, which as we know, he would never do! And that move that Dylan didn’t make cost Waxy upwards of £120,000. Waxy needs her money back.
Dylan finds out about all of this and is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He immediately reports her to Eleanor and Mohammad. And then things…really go haywire, and then even more so after an Act I cliffhanger that left my jaw on the ground. If this sounds confusing, it is and isn’t. Bean’s zippy writing makes it mostly easy to follow.
Anyway, back to Waxy. Before her first entrance, she feels mythically revered, and after her first scene, you never want a scene without her for the remainder of the evening. Her control of the stage, and of the other characters in the play, is so total, it’s astonishing. From the moment she enters in a bright white jumpsuit, you can’t take your eyes off her. In a commanding star turn by Billings, her Waxy Bush is delightfully villainous, scaring the hell out of the characters with her bursts of rage but keeping the audience in stitches with her malapropisms. Waxy mixes up words like diary and dairy – as in, “I have to write my appointments down in a dairy” – and Billings milks it all. Oh, and by the way, Waxy is a transgender woman.
And here’s where we find the evening’s major snag. The part of the roller coaster where you go, well, this is uncomfortable and I’d maybe like to get off, please. It’s revealed early on, to a character who hasn’t met Waxy, that she’s trans. What comes next is a series of uncomfortable one-liners about trans bodies pre- and post-op that are clearly meant to highlight the ignorance of the characters onstage. After a certain number of jokes, we get it. The characters don’t get it, and the jokes begin to feel tasteless.
There’s another thread in the play about vegetarians as “oddity” to these working-class characters that runs in the same vein—strange shoehorned jokes about how Dylan is so good at snooker because he’s a vegetarian. But the vegetarian jibes don’t entirely feel as distressing as the jokes at the cost of trans bodies, though. I guess because vegetarians aren’t being denied healthcare in America or being gunned down around the world.
These stinging scenes make up less than five minutes of the play, but does that mean the rest of the play makes up for them? This is something I’ve been thinking about all week since seeing the play. Because some of Bean’s writing is so on-point and funny I was doubled over holding in laughter. The performances are across the board stellar. Billings aside, Conlee and Schnetzer hold their own, and Day is as captivating as ever in a role that would have easily been played on one note. David Rockwell’s set is my favorite set I’ve seen in an MTC show in years. The set pieces, which fly in and out to rock music, are hyperspecific, filled with tons of tiny sight gags hidden in the details of the dressing. Justin Townsend’s lighting is super exciting, as always, because his work makes lighting feel crucial to the storytelling.
But those jokes, man. It’s like when you get off a really old roller coaster. You say to your friend with whom you rode, “That was a lot of fun, but my God, I have a headache.”