A retitled version of Regretrosexual—The Love Story, a play written roughly 10 years ago by Dan Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtree, the “new play” Hot Mess is about the authors’ unusual courtship and marriage. Both were comedians working in Los Angeles, and the work focuses on a particular hurdle Rothenberg had to overcome: he had lived as a gay man for two years in San Francisco before meeting and marrying Crabtree. Scrubbing out the “regret” part of the former title and using the catchier Hot Mess eliminates the implication of previous disappointment in the age of political correctness.
The best comedies often tackle controversial subjects. In Comedians, the 1975 play by British dramatist Trevor Griffiths, a retired music hall performer teaching a night class for comedians (including Jonathan Pryce in a career-making performance that won him a Tony when it came to Broadway) advises them: “A comedian—that’s a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express.”
Rothenberg certainly follows that precept; he notes in his Playbill biography that Hot Mess is a “labor of love, and completely true story.” But is it an attempt to explain a bisexual yearning or an apologia for experimenting with homosexuality? When Max ultimately tells Lucy that his gay life was a phase that he had to experience to be primed to enter their heterosexual relationship, it’s hard to know. He doesn’t seem to regret it. And, to be fair, homosexual activists often accuse bisexuals of merely being closeted gays, so perhaps an attempt at explication is overdue. The play is certainly helped by being funny, and director Jonathan Silverstein makes sure that the one-liners and descriptions that have been honed by its authors deliver their payload smoothly.
Hot Mess also benefits from the warmth and attractiveness of its leads: Max Crumm, who plays Max Beigle, Rothenberg’s alter ego, and Lucy DeVito, who plays Elanor, a version of Crabtree. We first meet them in bed, where Max has just confessed that he’s a recovering alcoholic. Elanor responds to his alcoholism with unexpected positivity: “The other guys I’ve slept with were a problem ‘waiting’ to happen…. You’re a problem right now!”
Elanor, meanwhile, carries her own baggage: a horrific childhood and family brutality, with emotional crashes that linger in her life. Within a few minutes both partners raise a field of red flags, and yet one roots for the characters. It helps that Crumm and DeVito have great chemistry and solid comic chops, in spite of Max’s doubt in his stand-up routine. “I was never able to find a hook for my act,” he says. “I’ve always just been a mildly clever Jew. Nobody pays to see that.” (It’s unfortunate that Crumm, like many actors of his generation, sports several tattoos, which are anathema to Jews. It diverts one’s attention from the play to questions of how observant his character is and whether Jewishness is irrelevant to his character—it’s not, as it turns out.)
As Max struggles with when to tell Elanor about his background, he consults an old friend, Lewis Daniels, another stand-up comedian who, says Max, “used to be one of those comedians that you’d recognize from TV, until he burned every bridge in Hollywood just by being himself.” (The character reads as an homage to Lewis Black, whose abrasive persona he shares.) Lewis (Paul Molnar) is deeply skeptical of Elanor; once he learns that she has used a magic bit in her stand-up, he is incensed: “You’re worried about disclosing a little cock-sucking to some … rabbit pimp?!”
As the story moves amusingly from bedroom to car to nightclub-cum-laundromat, where Lewis washes his clothes and heckles, designer Tobin Ost evokes them with venues that are minimal fuss. Lewis presses Max to tell Elanor about his sexual history and persuade her that a sexually active gay man is marriage material. As a dry run, he strong-arms Max into a stand-up set about bisexuality (the theater audience becomes Max’s audience), and it’s an ambitious segue into an awkward, serious commentary with a thin veneer of humor à la Comedians. Unfortunately, it’s discomfiting both for Max and the audience, judging by a mere smattering of laughter during the routine.
Ultimately, even with mostly adept comedy writing and the authors’ daring in tackling so personal and touchy a subject, the result, at just under an hour, feels lumpy and overly earnest. Hot Mess isn’t a hot mess, but it feels like it needs more time in the oven.
Hot Mess is playing at the Jerry Orbach Theater (1627 Broadway at 50th Street) in an open-ended run. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, and at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets start at $77 and may be purchased at hotmesstheplay.com or by calling (866) 448-7849.