Gary review Taylor Mac’s Titus sequel is a bloody mess

An inspired idea, a comedic follow-up to Shakespeares brutal tragedy, is sadly not enough to sustain a disappointingly thin show

Nine onstage deaths, three severed hands, one severed tongue, one gang rape, one live burial and one cannibalistic pie. How do you top that? Or bottom it? Maybe you dont.

Taylor Macs Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is a very good idea, but not, unfortunately, a very good play. It begins where Titus Andronicus, Shakespeares shockorama tragedy leaves off, with nearly all the named characters dead and a vague call, borrowed from the Greeks, to order well the state. Which means that someone has to clean up the bodies.

That someone is Nathan Lanes Gary, a clown who makes a brief appearance in the original with a couple of non-jokes and some prop pigeons. The play condemns him to death, too, because thats Titus Andronicus for you, even the idiot with the pigeons gets it. But theres nothing like a bad coup to prevent a good hanging so here is Gary now, entering with a mop and staggered by the scene he encounters, a banquet hall garnished with piles of bodies that reach to the ceiling. There are dozens of these prop bodies, maybe hundreds, and the set designer Santo Loquasto or someone in his employ must have had a fun time designing the penises for most of them. (Romans did wear underwear, so poetic license?)

Lane is soon joined by Kristine Nielsen as Janice, a career maid. (Nielsen took the part after Andrea Martin broke several ribs during rehearsal. Comedy is hard.) Gary, with the typical confidence of an mediocre ancient world white man believes that he has been appointed head of the cleanup crew, but Janice has to show him how to strip a body, how to empty its stomach contents, how to bleed it. His comment when he sees her suctioning the blood tube: If this is the kind of thing ya gotta do on the regular, ya might not be living your best life.

Julie White in Gary. Photograph: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Shouldnt they just be burning the bodies on a pyre somewhere? Probably. But if it werent for the fart jokes and the feces jokes and the corpse penis jokes, the play wouldnt run more than an hour. Eventually, Gary has a questionably bright idea: he wants to put on a show, an artistic coup, an onslaught of ingenuity thats a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge. A comedy revenge to end all revenge. Janice thinks they should probably just clean up. This keeps the comedy going a little longer.

Giving Titus Andronicus a sixth act and then a seventh is such an inspired provocation and Lane and Nielsen, soon joined by the equally adept Julie White, are such superb clowns and the rage that undergirds this comedy a rage born of the unremitting truth that people in power make enormous messes and people out of power have to tidy those messes up is so scorching that it takes a while to realize that the play itself has nowhere to go and aside from moving corpses around not a lot to do.

In part thats because it owes a debt to mid-century absurdism, which was big on existential horror and not so much on plot, but its equally indebted to the joyful, vicious camp of the Theater of the Ridiculous, a style that made story part of the fun. Here Macs themes, questions of why we enjoy tragedy, why we countenance violence, how theater can be both a way of working through trauma and a way of inflicting more trauma, pile up like so many more bodies. I thought of Macs earlier works, like Red Tide Blooming or The Lilys Revenge and of course his 24-Decade project, shows that embedded his complicated ideas in antic, generous theatrical forms. That doesnt happen here.

The director George C Wolfe hasnt tamped down any of the plays anger or grotesquerie or gross-out humor and he and the design team have made it visually interesting. But they havent stopped it from going in increasingly flatulent circles. And Garys conceit, that if the people in power could only see how ridiculous and brutal and wrong-headed they are, they would somehow make a better, more hopeful world, well, weve tried that before. We are trying that all the time. It hasnt worked yet.

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