A Strange Loop is not formally autobiographical, but I did begin writing it as a monologue in my early 20s when I experienced myself as nothing more than a mass of undesirable, fat, black queerness. I was functionally miserable, relentlessly self-critical and very lonely. It was like I was on the outside of my body looking in and on the inside of my body scratching to get out. Self-hatred is a strange loop too.
So declares author, lyricist and composer Michael R. Jackson of his mawkish musical A Strange Loop in its program notes. The title is a reference to a Liz Phair song and to Douglas Hofstadter’s philosophical work of the same name. After enduring its 140 straight through minutes one wishes that this therapeutic exercise had been monologue, a play rather or anything else other than a full-fledged musical. The material certainly has dramatic potential but here we’re in smarmy self-indulgent territory recalling [title of show] and reveling in bombastic coarseness.
…it’s about a black, queer man writing a musical about a black, queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man…
Twenty-five-year-old African-American Michigan native and New York University graduate Usher is an usher at a Disney Broadway musical who is writing an autobiographical musical about his troubled life. His religious Christian parents are scornful of his sexuality and dubious of his career goals as he doesn’t emulate the commercial simplisticness of Tyler Perry who gets skewered in a production number. This exploration is light on plot and so we get a series a of overheated vignettes often laden with wan shock value. The often didactic dialogue relies on scatology peppered with the N-word. Dark comedy crossed with poignancy abounds.
Citing Stephen Sondheim and Scott Rudin are typical insider catnip as is bemoaning the theatrical tastes of tourists. Whitney Houston appears in a coffin and she along with other iconic figures in African-American history such as Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin pop up to scold.
An eerie sequence depicts an oppressive take on online app hookups as Usher is savaged for his race and appearance. There’s a chilling fantasy where he is taunted by an idealized gay white male. Later on, he treks to Inwood for a crystal meth tryst with an old white man. We witness his suggestively being sodomized accompanied by a song. Jackson’s valid scenario and societal concerns are undercut by the piece’s unsuccessful attempt at being of musical theater, though some incidents emotionally resonate.
Mr. Jackson’s lyrics ineptly repeat a theme over and over and his melodies are generic. This rudimentary score coupled with the aimless book make A Strange Loop a trying experience.
The affable and talented Larry Owens maintains his dignity throughout this harrowing morass while delivering a winning performance as Usher. Mr. Owens’ charm goes along way into making the production bearable.
Usher is taunted by six figures representing his “extremely obnoxious Thoughts.” They are dynamically portrayed by Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, , and Jason Veasey. They also gleefully play a variety of cartoonish subsidiary characters.
Director Stephen Brackett’s adroit staging and Raja Feather Kelly’s razzle dazzle choreography bring a semblance of coherence and visual appeal to the production which is enhanced by the technical elements.
Arnulfo Maldonado ingenious scenic design briskly transports the show to several real and imaginary locations. Lighting designer Jen Schriever
provides a suitably nightmarish dimension. Alex Hawthorn’s sound design perfectly renders the music and ominous effects. From the brown proletariat outfits for the Thoughts to lustrous ensembles and baggy street clothes for Usher, Levi Blanco’s costume design in excellent.
Like its central character, A Strange Loop has a good heart but also a lot of problems.
A Strange Loop (extended through July 28, 2019)
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission