Dressed to Cross

Matthew Lopez, best known for The Whipping Boy, an intense drama about slavery and the Civil War, could hardly have followed it with something more different than The Legend of Georgia McBride, a confection of spangles and sass at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The new play is a farce in the vein of La Cage aux Folles and Tootsie, leavened with some obvious sermonizing about finding one’s inner self and celebrating the indomitability required to wear a dress and padding—sort of “Climb ev’ry mountain, find ev’ry frock.” It’s good fun, and there are plenty of laughs, but it’s also predictable. Uptown, for instance, an empowered drag queen saves a whole factory full of straight people by manufacturing irrepressible footwear.

Skillfully structured by Lopez, and well-directed by Mike Donahue for MCC Theater, Georgia McBride follows a young married man, Casey (Dave Thomas Brown), who can’t manage to support his wife, Jo (Afton Williamson), by performing as Elvis. When they’re about to be evicted from their home because they’re behind on their rent, and Jo is pregnant, the irresponsible Casey reassures Jo with “We’ll figure it out."

The bar in the Florida panhandle—Panama City, to be exact—where Casey is working is hanging on by a thread. Georgia McBride takes off when Casey’s boss, Eddie (Wayne Duvall), brings in a distant cousin to transform the club into a gay bar “destination.” The cousin, Matt McGrath’s tall, skeptical Tracy Mills, is a drag queen who arrives backstage resembling a Tennessee Williams character, turbaned and weary. She has another drag queen in tow, Anorexia Nervosa, aka Rexy (Keith Nobbs). Casey’s Elvis impersonation is eliminated, but Eddie is kind enough to let him stay around to tend bar. Rexy, however, has a drinking problem, and one night before her “Edith Piaf number,” she passes out. Quicker than you can say “bouffant hairdo,” Casey is put into a wig and dress and ordered to perform as Piaf.
 
“I don’t know anything about doing drag!” whines Casey. “Has that ever stopped anyone?” Tracy sensibly responds. Casey is initially disastrous—but Donahue has pitched the gradual transformations skillfully through a succession of scenes, until Casey fully inhabits the drag and finds his true persona, a country music diva named Georgia McBride. All the way along Brown is excellent, persuasive both as the straight husband and the feminized drag queen. Helpfully, he never registers as androgynous; he’s a masculine male, yet in women’s clothes his Y chromosome never shows.

Under Tracy’s tutelage, Georgia starts as an ugly duckling but becomes a star. In typical farce fashion, however, Casey doesn’t tell his Jo what he’s up to. He just hands her the increased income and explains that bookings of heavy metal bands have increased profits at the bar, which is 40 miles from their home. Eventually, of course, Jo finds out everything, and there’s some dramatic hand-wringing about whether she will leave him, but none of it rings true, and Williamson in the thankless role can’t do much to invest it with suspense. 

The cast is mostly outstanding. Nobbs plays two roles, and as Rexy he’s not really convincing as a woman, unless you think “roller derby.” (The idea that Rexy could pull off Piaf is ludicrous.) But as Casey’s henpecked neighbor Jason, the actor shows why he’s one of his generation’s outstanding artists. A highlight of the production is Jason’s recollection of his dating “a gender nonconformist” that Nobbs imbues with nostalgia, rue and gentle humor.

McGrath as Tracy has the showiest role, and he seizes it with relish, by turns sympathetic, caustic, disdainful, but most often indomitable. He has the fun of dropping most of the inside references: to Stephen Sondheim (Company, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Auntie Mame, among many others.

Anita Yavich supplies all the explosions of color one expects from drag costumes—and there are plenty of them—and Ben Stanton’s lighting is sometimes subdued, sometimes garish, and always fun. Donyale Werle has contributed a set that screams “sleazy white trash.” (It’s a stereotype that Lopez indulges in as well, when Jason speaks of his wife and children: “There were rumors we had some cousins in common, and now I think that might have been true.”)

All in all, The Legend of Georgia McBride covers well-tilled ground, but has enough wit and wisdom of its own to make a visit pleasurable.  

The MCC Theater production of The Legend of Georgia McBride runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St. between Bleecker and Hudson Sts.) in Manhattan through Oct. 11. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with Thursday evening performances at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1, and at 8 p.m. on Sept. 24 and Oct. 8. Tickets may be purchased by calling 212-727-7722 or visiting www.mcctheater.org.

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