In a recent episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the very much alive Albert Brooks is planning a funeral. Everyone is rightly complimentary, and Brooks enjoys watching it all on a CCTV in his bedroom. And then someone accidentally opens the wrong closet door and finds that Brooks is a COVID-19 hoarder.
Taylor Mac does better at Brooks, and doesn’t just afford a funeral. He takes center stage and portrays himself as Socrates in “The Hang,” which opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Here Arts Center. Aristophanes (Ryan Chittaphong), who attacked the sage in his comedy “The Clouds,” is the villain here. Plato (again Chittaphong), not a fan of comedy or tragedy, records everything on a former stenographer, writing “Apology”. And everyone was asked to “hang themselves” while the hemlock is popped. Guests run the gamut, from followers like Cebes to junk candies like Skittles and that well-known fashion accessory Paillette. Among these happy revelers, Kat Edmonson appears as the Teresa Stratas of Off-Off Broadway.
This deliciously bizarre new opera, with book and lyrics by Mac and music by Matt Ray, immediately dazzles – with the cast of nine wearing fabulous outfits from Machine Dazzle. The designer also uses what was left of the tulle, sequins and crepe to dress the garish set in the shape of a womb.
The jazz score, with detours to blues and gospel, is consistently striking and often alluring in its textured beauty, not to mention its variety. Mac and Ray add a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan here, lounge there and even a hint of Noel Coward. No, they don’t imitate Coward’s songs. They bring him on stage to explain Socrates’ “crimes” involving the male youth of Athens. Spoiler: Mac can also play Coward.
Giving its shows a strong narrative drive has never been a Mac signature. Instead, he loads “The Hang” with more ideas than you’ll hear in an opera season at the Met. What is the nature of art? Is style more important than content? Does beauty have anything to do with morality? How are justice and virtue manipulated to end curiosity? Frankly, that last question puzzled me. But I was totally comfortable with this: Why would a group of butch gays dress in black t-shirts and black jeans to protest the Gay Pride takeover? A radical fairy, Socrates makes it clear that he lived his life on the chariot with all the half-naked boys dancing singing “It’s Raining Men (Hallelujah)”.
Niegel Smith’s direction lends a sweet showmanship to all the philosophical wrangling. As the debate begins, Mac throws Socrates a “Who me?” naivete. You quickly realize that he also gives himself the most extravagant costumes – and in this production, that says a lot. Unfortunately, a long costume change, into a white dress, isn’t worth the wait and completely pierces the denouement. “The Hang” offers half a dozen endings after the hemlock should have done its job. The really good news: Many times, just when another song isn’t needed, Mac’s lyrics and Ray’s music come across as more alluring than ever. Only Socrates’ final whiny lament disappoints.
Criticizing Mac for its indulgence is like saying the Empire State Building is tall. Socrates’ very long disappearance here is reminiscent of a New Orleans jazz funeral with a marching band. One has to go back to Barbra Streisand singing “It’s Gonna Be a Great Day” in “Funny Lady” to find an example of such jaw-dropping cultural appropriation.
Robert Hofler, senior theater critic for TheWrap, has worked as an editor for Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”, “Party Animals”, and “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos”. His latest book, “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne”, is out now.