Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 19 March 2024

Review: Teeth at Playwrights Horizons

Playwrights Horizons ⋄ February 21-April 14, 2024

The new horror comedy musical by Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs is a wild, fast-moving, gleeful ride. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
Courtney Bassett, Helen J. Shen, Lexi Rhoades, Alyse Alan Louis, Wren Rivera, Phoenix Best, and Jenna Rose Husli in <i>Teeth</i>. Photo: Chelcie Parry.

Courtney Bassett, Helen J. Shen, Lexi Rhoades, Alyse Alan Louis, Wren Rivera, Phoenix Best, and Jenna Rose Husli in Teeth. Photo: Chelcie Parry.

Teeth–the new musical by Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs freely adapted from the 2007 indie film–takes its roots in the horror genre seriously. It’s gory, including a number of amputated penises that has to be unprecedented in the American musical. It’s sexually explicit (yes, most of its characters are members of a sexually repressive religion; yes, one of its early songs is called “Modest Is Hottest”; but Jackson’s lyrics, in particular, are unafraid to dig deep into fantasy, impure thought, and all the ways the show’s teens have lives more complicated than the ideals they espouse). It features fairly realistic depictions of sexual assault and of violent child abuse, a deep dive into the dark-web corners of the men’s rights movement, and an onstage gynecological exam (accompanied by a musical number that might top Little Shop of Horrors’ “Dentist” in its maligning of the inner life of a particular medical specialist). It also, if one is the kind of person who generally has a lot of theater to reference in “What are you doing this weekend” kinds of conversations, requires one to talk about vagina dentatas a lot. Sometimes in conversations with one’s coworkers. (Look, I work in book publishing; we are not a squeamish bunch and I have on one more than one occasion for entirely work-related reasons had to talk about male-male menage romance novels with my boss, but still: did not predict that more than three conversations in my life, let alone in one week, would include the phrase “You know, the vagina dentata musical.”) In other words, it’s deliriously, wildly family-unfriendly. 

I am not saying this is a bad thing: part of what Teeth is about–part of what the entire horror genre is about–is transgression and boundaries: the boundaries of ideology, the boundaries of societal propriety, the boundaries of our very bodies. There’s some powerful metaphor hovering around the “integrity” of female purity and the more primal integrity of our skin; about the “monsters” of depravity and licentiousness conjured up in fundamentalist Christianity and the actual creatures of the night we see in horror. Teeth throws that all into a cauldron, heats it white-hot, and lets it explode all over the stage. It’s a wild, fast-moving, gleeful ride. Its message sometimes gets muddy, and despite the very firm hand of director Sarah Benson on the reins of the whole mad spectacle, the ending sends some of what I thought it was about up in flames (quite literally–there are pyrotechnics). (Dare I say, Teeth bites off a little more than it can chew? Too far, even in this context?) But it also successfully brings that horror experience of gleeful shock, of violence that you don’t know whether to cheer for or turn away from. And it marries that pleasurable discomfort with genuine questions about the intersection of ideology and violence, and about what happens when the victims of ideologically motivated violence turn to violent ends of their own, whether that’s in the context of the aforementioned vagina dentata or of a young man abused by his father who turns his pain and rage into punishing the “feminocracy.” In a way that a show like Grey House to my mind failed to do, Teeth engages seriously with the deeper fears behind the jump cuts and gore: Who are the monsters in our society, and do we recognize them when we see them…or when we look in the mirror?

In an author’s note in the script, Jacobs and Jackson write: “It is our intention that in Teeth, it is the marriage of ideology and violence that delivers the multiple horrors within.” The first of those ideologies starts out front and center: with Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), the leader of the Promise Keeper Girls, the teen youth group in New Testament Village, who have been raised to value their purity above all else. Yet, one of their cohort has gotten pregnant, and neither she nor the responsible boy is getting off the hook. Their pastor (Steven Pasquale, as the only “adult” in the cast, doubles as an equally benighted and abusive gynecologist later in the show) is sure going to make the most of the opportunity to shame and castigate the girls. 

Dawn, the pastor’s stepdaughter, is the community’s pure and perfect princess—but Dawn, like everyone else (as we’ll soon find out in song), is less perfect than she seems. She has lustful thoughts toward her boyfriend, Tobey (Jason Gotay). She has a fraught relationship with her stepbrother, Brad (Will Connolly), who suffers daily under the pastor’s violent control. And, as she discovers when she and Tobey get engaged on the spur of the moment and he persuades her to give marital relations a preview in an encounter that rapidly crosses the line into rape, there’s that situation with the teeth down there. Teeth that in her mind (and in the mind of Brad, who had an early encounter with them) make her a monster. Teeth that in the mind of her friend Ryan (Jared Lofton) make her “a superhero that Father God armed with teeth so you can bite back against the patriarchy.” (Which, as Dawn immediately responds, is a dubious assertion given that Father God represents the patriarchy, but the hero vs monster dynamic remains. Ryan will shortly also prove untrustworthy for other reasons, but we’ll get to that.)

Meanwhile, Brad, seething at his father’s unequal treatment of him and Dawn and having internalized some dangerous lessons from both Pastor’s violent abuse and Pastor’s ideas about masculinity, has joined the Truthseekers, an online community dedicated to rescuing men from “low-vibration masculinity.” He trades the church’s Father God for the guru Godfather (Pasquale again, in voiceover and for some reason an Australian accent), who sees sex as a weapon of domination rather than repression, but a weapon just the same. And when a frightened Dawn goes to Ryan for help only to discover that he’s as interested in using her to prove he’s successfully repented from his gay past as he is in helping her through trauma, she might just need to build a toothéd army to take down all the men around her. (The ensemble of half a dozen PKGs who get enlisted in said army don’t get a whole lot to do individually, other than a moment where each gets to sing about her most prevalent sexual transgression. Mostly, they’re Dawn’s backup singers, first in chastity and then in depravity. They get a few great dance numbers courtesy of Raja Feather Kelly, but outside of Dawn herself, it’s Dawn’s oppressors-turned-victims who get the character development and the musical solos. It’s an accurate depiction of Dawn’s beleaguered isolation, but it also tips the show’s gravity oddly in the direction of the men.) It’s the patriarchy as a three-headed monster, with Dawn, Brad, and Ryan depicting the way that ideology/violence pattern plays out across genders and sexual identities. 

This sounds like, and is, A LOT. At the same time, it’s an intermissionless two hours that if anything could use a little more room to breathe in its last half hour, a manic rush of spectacle and gore. Jacobs, Jackson, and Benson ratchet up quickly from the slightly syrupy tongue-in-cheek satire of “Precious Gift” (“A precious gift is not like sushi a la carte”) to the explicit violence in “A Real Man” and sex in “Playing with Fire” and“Born Again” (a song that rhymes “I’m far with squeaky clean” with “to some I’m still known as the creampie anal queen” and sings “I once self-abused with a zucchini” as the kickoff to a fairly sincere paean to salvation and rebirth) and then all the way to full-blown rock opera spectacle (again, literal pyrotechnics) without ever showing a seam. Alyse Alan Louis gives an intensely physical performance as Dawn; we watch the power coming into her body and her voice as she grapples with her gift/curse. She almost literally vibrates with it by the end, as if her very skin is wrestling with the violence within. (The twitch becomes so intense as to be a little unsettling–it’s a horror show, after all.) Pasquale revels in every moment of all three of his “men of power” roles in a way that again shows a commitment that can be discomfiting to the audience.

The design elements are streamlined and keep pace as well: Enver Chakartash’s perfectly bland costumes. Adam Rigg’s fake-paneled rec room of a set, dominated by a neon cross (though the catwalk level, in a fairly low-ceilinged space, doesn’t work particularly effectively). Lighting designers Jane Cox and Stacey DeRosier shift from sickly indoor light to moody shadow (not surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of stark shadows of the cross, and almost no daylight here). And sound designer Palmer Hefferan gets special credit for the noise I can only describe as the “snap.”

The show, ultimately, soars on its songs—the book does the groundwork it needs to, but the wit and heart of the musical lie in Michael Jackson’s lyrics and Anna Jacobs’s music. Little details like the moment when the evil gynecologist keeps singing at Dawn to “Scoot down” on the table (a refrain any woman who’s had a pelvic exam will know all too well), like Ryan and Brad dueting “According to the wiki” as they perform parallel research on the goddess Dentata (“feminine protection from a masculine attack” on the one hand, “relentless in her butchering of everything male” on the other).

The gonzo climax of the show (spoiler alert) seems to come down on the side of relentless butchering. The vagina dentata spawns its own army, flipping from self-defense mechanism to tool of rampant vengeance in a way that perhaps doesn’t entirely track with the metaphor—if the women are in control of the sex, fighting for the cause of “feminocratic liberation,” are they still protecting themselves? Are we supposed to end up feeling sorry for the victims of the feminocracy after all, who end up as literally emasculated zombies?  

I know it’s always easier to tear down old myths than to build new ones. And the satire here is pointed and rich; purity and gender ideology and controlling desire in the name of power and shame are big targets and Jacobs and Jackson hit them over and over right on the nose with their lyrics. So even if the message is a little murky, the ride is far too much fun to really care. I woke up the next day with a medley of “Modest Is Hottest” and “Dentata” running through my head. How, in the end, do you resist lyrics like “I’ve never been the hero, just the sodomite next door”? Teeth may not be for everyone, but on a playing field full of movie-to-stage (or book-to-movie-to-stage) adaptations, it’s doing something wild and original. I’ll take it over The Notebook any day. 

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Teeth at Playwrights Horizons Show Info

Produced by Playwrights Horizons

Directed by Sarah Benson

Written by Anna K. Jacobs and Michael R. Jackson, based on the screenplay by Mitchell Lichtenstein; lyrics by Michael R. Jackson; music by Anna K. Jacobs

Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly

Scenic Design Adam Rigg; COSTUME DESIGN: Enver Chakartash; SPECIAL EFFECTS: Jeremy Chernick

Lighting Design Jane Cox and Stacey DeRosier

Sound Design Palmer Hefferan

Cast includes Julia Bain, Courtney Bassett, Phoenix Best, Will Connolly, Jason Gotay, Jenna Rose Husli, Jared Loftin, Alyse Alan Louis, Steven Pasquale, Lexi Rhoades, Wren Rivera, Helen J. Shen

Original Music Anna K. Jacobs

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours


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