Here’s a sentence I don’t think I ever imagined I would write in my life: In Matt Schatz’s musical comedy An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake, the protagonist is a dramaturg named Beth, whose attempts to get a “serious” new play into the season of a fictional New York theater company come into conflict with the artistic director’s plan to produce a yet-to-be-written work by Justin Timberlake.
The protagonist – of a musical comedy – is a dramaturg? That may well be the theater-nerd equivalent of “You had me at hello.” (And if that’s the case for you, you might as well stop reading here).
Still with me? Let’s go over the premise again. Dramaturg/literary manager Beth (Julianne Avolio) is a theater idealist who is sustained by the mantra “do good work, do good plays.” When she discovers a play by the relatively unknown El Yamasaki Brooks (Lara Hayhurst) that she thinks has both social import and theatrical promise, she makes it her mission to convince her artistic director boss, the narcissistic Todd-Michael Smyth (Craig MacDonald) to agree to produce it. She convinces him to let her pitch the project to rising-star director Liz Cohen (Melessie Clark), who initially finds both the play, and Beth, alluring, and eagerly signs on. But complications ensue when Smyth returns from Los Angeles with the opportunity to premiere a new work by Justin Timberlake; to Beth’s surprise and dismay, Liz proves cynically ready to join Smyth in hitching her wagon to Timberlake’s celebrity star.
Schatz is a writer whom I’ve described in a previous post as someone who makes “devilish comic hay” with language; I’ll double down on that assessment here. I imagine him in front of his laptop with an imp on each shoulder egging him on to further and further heights of delirious linguistic brio. How do you not fall in love with a lyricist who manages, within the first few lines of a musical, to have a character sing that she’s “a transplanted Floridian” on her way to a “Le Pain Quotidien”? It only gets better from there, and it would be meanspirited of me to spoil for you the LOL surprise of some of Schatz’s rhymes; I’ll just say, you gotta give serious props to a guy who can seamlessly work in a rhyme to “Shakespeare” in a rap song titled “Starstruck Starfucker” (more on this in a moment).
Schatz’s music is vibrant and energetic, with a mostly pop-rock feel; I could wish in this moment that I was sufficiently versant in the JT oeuvre to be able to tell you whether there are musical call-outs in the score that match the wit of the lyrics. Alas, I am the kind of boomer who finds that all of the pop tenors I’ve heard on the radio since the mid 1990s sound interchangeable; if Schatz scattered Timberlake- or NSYNC-related musical easter eggs throughout the show, I missed them. Under Douglas Levine’s musical direction the hidden five-piece band is tight and the vocalists shine; excellently balanced sound (Zachary Beattie-Brown) lets you hear every word with crystal clarity.
Comic as the action and subject matter of Untitled are, Schatz manages to work in some sharp digs against the dysfunctional world of the nonprofit theater, and in particular he paints an eerily accurate picture of its power dynamics. I can think of several artistic directors who might have been the inspiration for the psychologically manipulative Smyth; ditto directors who, like Liz, are quick to shift their sails to catch the prevailing winds and who might, like her, justify their self-serving game-playing by claiming that “lying is our business.” The dramaturg who sees herself as a “modestly paid, hardly noticed, quiet person that could make a difference” also rings familiar, as does the anxious and despondent playwright at the bottom of the ladder. Schatz keenly observes how this system tends to absorb and coopt its idealistic young; even the principled Beth finds it hard to resist when Timberlake (Hayhurst, again, drolly caricaturing some of his signature NSYNC looks and moves) arrives and dials up the celebrity charm wattage on her.
Director Reginald Douglas has pulled together an ensemble that mines hilarity out of these power dynamics. As MacDonald, Smyth’s body language oozes white male privilege and the kind of “hey I’m one of the good guys” informality and unguardedness that so often characterizes charismatic but codependent leaders. Clark rides the rollercoaster of Liz’s flipflopping objectives with panache – costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill helps out by giving her a wig to match each new outfit, mood, and alliance – and she expresses the rage of women everywhere with her powerhouse delivery of the song “Would You Ever Have Said That?” Hayhurst gives the character El Yamasaki Brooks a neurotic unpredictability that both exploits and defies the stereotype of the “serious writer,” and her sendup of JT is pretty pitch-perfect. But it’s Avolio who carries the show with her nuanced and self-aware portrayal of the mission-driven (and somewhat out of her depth) Beth. Many of the funniest lyrics in the libretto are hers to sing, and it’s not just the clarity of her voice, but also the clarity of intention she brings to each thought that gets the lyrical wit to land just right. A highlight is her rendition of “Starstruck Starfucker,” the rapid-fire, expletive-laden rap number Beth sings to vent her anger over Liz and Todd-Michael’s embrace of the Timberlake project. Not only does Avolio manage to navigate its myriad tongue-twisters without incident (try saying the title alone five times fast and see where that gets you), but she also crafts the emotional arc and fury of the song with brilliant precision. I’d see the show a second time just to ride that wave with her again.
Schatz developed this sympathetic portrait of the work a dramaturg does “behind the scenes of the behind the scenes” over many years, receiving feedback and input from many collaborators along the way, including (you guessed it) dramaturgs. In particular, here in Pittsburgh Untitled benefited from the wisdom and insight of Olivia O’Connor, the Manager of New Work Development at Pittsburgh CLO, and Clare Drobot, co-Artistic Director of City Theatre. While I imagine they both had a grand time poking a bit of fun at their own profession, they are also artists who share Beth’s serious commitment to “do good work, do good plays.” Lofty as that sounds, sometimes it can be achieved through light-hearted comedy. With Untitled, I’d say it’s mission accomplished.