Exuberant, metatheatrical, and never afraid to beat a leprosy joke into the ground or double down on a rule of three, Hansol Jung’s latest play is a delirious lesbian sex farce that sometimes seems more committed to its intertexuality than to what’s happening on the stage in front of us. There are times when Merry Me feels like nothing so much as a buoyant vibrator commercial, amping up its bawdily queer comedy to extol the joys of women taking their satisfaction into their own hands and looking outside the heterosexual marriage plot for the fullest expression of their sexuality. It’s steamy, it’s ridiculous, and everyone (except the patriarchy) ultimately gets a happy ending. But then there are the times where its cheeky, raunchy soap bubbles of silliness deflate under politics as unsubtle as the humor.
On an unnamed island in an army camp suffering a mysterious, lengthy power failure, an Angel/narrator (Shaunette Renée Wilson) sets the scene (with a large hat-tip to Our Town). Lieutenant Shane Horne (Esco Jouléy)–”God’s gift to lady parts”–has just gotten out of the brig after serving time for seducing Clytemnestra (Cindy Cheung), the wife of General Memnon (David Ryan Smith). Horne tries to enlist her friend/therapist/ex Jess O’Nope (Marinda Anderson) in a plot (lifted from Restoration comedy) to pretend to have undergone a prison conversion to heterosexuality, so that the men feel safe having Shane around the ladies. Shane, in turn, feeling somewhat sexually numb (or lacking in merries, to use the play’s term), will use the plot complexities hereby introduced to have sex that is “better than any other sex because it took five acts to get there.” (“Five acts” here being more like a handful of short scenes; that part of the plot works with a swiftness.) Meanwhile, the general’s son, Willie Memnon (Ryan Spahn, giving a genuine sweetness to his role as the butt of every joke), has recently married Sapph (Nicole Villamil), who’s rapidly rethinking her decision to marry for money, especially when she meets Shane and sparks fly.
Meanwhile, Jess is getting visitations from a hot Angel–specifically the titular angel from Angels in America, reimagined as a sex goddess–who wants her to kill half of humanity starting with the cis white men. Starting specifically with Willie, who Jess kinda has a thing for—Willie, whose ostensible wokeness doesn’t stop him from being a stereotypical mansplaining twit, it just means he calls himself out after he does it. (See heavy-handed politics, below; a little of this goes a long way and there’s several spots where I’d love to have seen this happen more in the stage business and less in dialogue.)
The cross-references and the callbacks alone could fill an entire review here: The Greeks, mythological and historical, who populate the character list (Agamemnon, Trojan war general; Clytemnestra, his wife; Sappho, famed lesbian poet). The Restoration comedy that inspires the play’s central character (Wycherley’s famously filthy The Country Wife). Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, whose Angel Jung shamelessly borrows. Avengers: Infinity War, whose plot the Angel thinks might be a good model for saving humanity by killing half of it. Fifty Shades of Grey, because who doesn’t have a Red Room? An opening monologue straight out of Our Town.
Jung and director Leigh Silverman would, I think, like to use an arch tone to slip in the didactic with the same irreverence as the dick joke, popping in the politics as metatextual asides or narrator interpellations. You can only get so much mileage out of the straight man being, always, well, the straight man: making fun of boring married sex, of hapless married men, and the failings of the woke white man. And they don’t always seem to be sure how firmly tongue is in cheek (though the play certainly encourages one to imagine tongues in all sorts of other places); the light touch falters, and when that starts to tip over into something darker and more violent, the balance never quite recovers. The performances, too, can feel tonally unbalanced, with Jouléy, Wilson, and Smith going big, and Anderson, Villamil, and Spahn trying to find something a little quieter. Cindy Cheung’s dry exasperation, somewhere in the middle, brings an outsize share of the laughs.
Jung’s earlier plays Wild Goose Dreams (also directed by Silverman) and Wolf Play succeeded in beautifully strange ways, marrying experiments in theatrical form with achingly resonant characters. Silverman’s work, too, often finds its heart in subtleties of character. Here’s all of that is out the window; the characters are as broad as can be, literally borrowed when they aren’t archetypes. Per an interview with Jung in The Brooklyn Rail, the play was written because director Leigh Silverman had a craving to direct a lesbian sex comedy. So far, so good. But Hansol Jung being the writer she is, she won’t just approach that straight (pun intended); it’s embellished, commented upon, stepped outside, and mingled with All Those Cross References.The madcap is interrupted by the info-dumps–whether about the plot of Avengers or facts that inspire feminist rage–and then those points echo and intentionally repeat, commenting on themselves.
Balancing the coyly knowing with the bluntly political is a hard thing, one that Jung and Silverman have tried to accomplish by letting the politics pop out as metatextual asides. But the sly comment and metatextual aside form a well that Merry Me visits too often, and its drop into a more rueful and reflective register in the epilogue, with a teeny shred of hope for the future of humanity, is maybe too little too late. For a play that expects its audience to pick up on a dizzying array of cultural, pop-cultural, and theatrical references, Merry Me doesn’t feel like it trusts us to get its message without pounding it into us with an axe–and doesn’t seem content to simply let us revel in its silliness, either.