Whether you’ve ever watched a beauty pageant before or not, you should definitely get a high kick out of Mister Miss America, a humorous fantasy about a young gay man competing in an all-female beauty pageant. This one-man pomp and spectacle is currently on display at the West Village hidden gem Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Having won the banner of “Mister Miss Smithville,” Derek Tyler Taylor (played by actor/comedian/writer Neil D’Astolfo) is the first male titleholder in the Southwestern Virginia circuit, and he’s moved on to the next level to compete in the 86th Annual Miss Southwestern Virginia Pageant.
Oh, so you haven’t seen the previous 85 pageants? No matter, Taylor tells us from his dressing room, gleefully chatty with the audience and thrilled to have made it this far, just as the Bathing Suit portion is about to begin. Regaling us with stories and gossip, sparing no hicks or contestants, Taylor tells his challenges of being a gay man in the all-female beauty contest as well as in the contest of his personal life. In a surprise turn of events, Taylor learns a shocking secret about his fiercest competitor, the hypocritically pious “Miss Roanoke” K-I-M-B-E-R L-E-I-G-H (no, not “Kimberly”) Dixon, and Taylor considers whether to reveal the secret publicly to have her disqualified and improve his chances of winning.
D’Astolfo (that’s duh-STAHL-fo, mkay?), who also wrote the piece, sends Taylor off like a firecracker from the moment he comes onto the stage, speeding through Taylor’s wry and witty dialect so fast, why Mother of Jefferson Davis, he’s passing the fox! D’Astolfo’s dialogue is chock full of delightful West Virginian-isms, gay and regional. Taylor is described in the script as “wide-eyed and winning,” and this definitely describes D’Astolfo in the role. He also adds to the play’s humor in a totally different capacity as the voice of the wry, off-stage announcer and master of ceremonies.
D’Astolfo’s script takes great care to ensure that Taylor’s humorous, fast-talking scenes throughout the pageant don’t stay superficial forever; D’Astolfo ultimately weaves themes of homophobia, moral conscientiousness, vulnerability, and courage into some very poignant moments, made even more by acute director Tony Speciale’s pacing.
The costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski is as fabulous as Taylor requires, from the bathing suit round, to talent, and all the way to interview, culminating in a glorious final gown with rhinestone boots. Sequins, gems and glitter abound at just the right moments, perfectly complemented by Tommy Kurzman’s wigs and make up. The lighting design by Travis McHale serves well to suggest the other contestants as well as to augment some significant flashbacks.
One of Taylor’s character traits is that he’s such a fast talker, and this does add to the humor; however, the speed of delivery does result in a loss of some of D’Astolfo’s delightful word morsels, delectable bites which go by so quickly the audience can’t take a breath to laugh and appreciate them.
The play has some bittersweet moments amongst the hilarity, but it ultimately ends in joyous optimism, where Taylor hopes that “one day, I’m gon’ see some fabulous lil’ unicorn do somethin’ amazin’, and maybe they’ll say it’s cuz they saw Derek Tyler Taylor compete in The 86th Annual Miss Southwestern Virginia Pageant wearin’ sapphire…and I’m proud of that.” A self-described “Polly-Pocket” and a “turtle boy” as a child, Derek Tyler Taylor stands tall and right-sized as a man by the end of this play, and that kind of growth surely represents a crowning moment in any young gay man’s lifetime.
Mister Miss America (through August 7, 2022)
All For One Theater
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, in Manhattan
For tickets visit https://www.afo.nyc/mister-miss-america
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission