Theatre Review: Merry Me (New York Theatre Workshop) ★★★★

Playwright Hansol Jung and veteran Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman reunite, following their collaborations on Cardboard Piano and Wild Goose Dreams, to create an evening of queer bliss with the hilarious lesbian sex comedy Merry Me running at New York Theatre Workshop until Sunday, November 19th. Jung’s new play brings together Restoration comedy, Greek theatre, and Shakespeare (one of the lead characters even masturbates with the complete works) in a way that’s never remotely pretentious or excluding, but is deliciously fresh and always adds to the humour. There is a plethora of pop culture references too, including Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, The L Word, The Hunger Games, Marvel movies, Elton John and David Bowie lyrics, and that “get out the popcorn” meme.

Shaunette Renée Wilson is divine as the Angel in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the play is about to begin, a Chrous-like luminous Shaunette Renée Wilson playing an Angel—from Kushner’s Angels in America no less—sets the scene by pointing out that she is an actor, going on to impress us with her considerable skills as she pretends to watch a beautiful sunrise (while actually being blasted by a NYTW stage spotlight). She invokes the audience to play our part in imagining a vast beach and military base camp before the house lights go down. It’s a prologue that effectively invites us in, keeps us invested and alert as coconspirators in building the world of the play, and demolishes the fourth wall before it’s even been fully erected.

Cindy Cheung and Esco Jouléy in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The unspecified location is a tent-filled “basecamp of A Nation’s most prestigious navy on an Island not far from Another Nation’s most vulnerable coast cities”. In the midst of war, the militarily and sexually impotent General Memnon’s (David Ryan Smith) efforts have been stifled by a major ongoing Blackout. With no power, his ships can’t set sail, he can’t launch any missiles, and even more devastatingly there’s no access to online porn and no calls home to mother. In a running joke, government owned paper cups connected to string take the place of walkie-talkies. In fact, the only electronic devices that happen to be fully operational are vibrators, which both the General’s Wife, Clytemnestra (a wonderful Cindy Cheung), and Mrs. Sapph Memnon (Nicole Villamil), the wife of the General’s uptight Nirvana t-shirt wearing son Private Willy Memnon (Ryan Spahn), both urgently need to get their merries (the play’s euphemism for reaching orgasm and general sexual pleasure).

Esco Jouléy in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A character who knows all about merrymaking and how to deliver said sexual pleasure is the endlessly charismatic “shapely shouldered soldier” Lieutenant Shane Horne (nonbinary actor Esco Jouléy), a woman “with a piercing gaze and massive biceps” as Willy rather enviously puts it when describing her to his wife. While the Angel tells us that Horne is “God’s gift to lady parts of all shapes, colors, and vintages”. It’s a lot for an actor to live up to, but Jouléy breezily encapsulates all those things, bringing an intoxicating confidence to Horne, and with them in the role it’s immediately easy to believe that they’d had every queer woman they encounter falling at their feet.

Nicole Villamil, Shaunette Renée Wilson and Ryan Spahn in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jung’s meta spark of genius is to have Horne suggest to her psychiatrist, Dr. Jess O’Nope (Marinda Anderson), that she help her to essentially reenact the plot of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife so that she can get her merries. She already has the name and a reputation with the ladies on the island comparable to that of Wycherley’s womanizing Harry Horner, so why not? Recently out of solitary confinement for sleeping with the General’s Wife, Horne attempts to get the doctor to convince the world that she’s no longer queer. Reassuring the doc that she’s not in any danger of losing her job for “converting” her, saying, “we do not live in a world where people lose licenses for traumatizing a gay person’s psyche”. Things also sound a little too eerily familiar when O’Nope later points out: “Laws and regulations that protect non hetero normative citizens are still at infant stage and can easily be loopholed or repealed by angry impotent men with nuclear power at their finger”. Observations like this, delivered sparingly throughout the play, briefly pierce the farce as they lampoon our real world follies.

Cindy Cheung, Marinda Anderson, Nicole Villamil, Esco Jouléy, and Shaunette Renée Wilson in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There’s a captivating rhythm to Jung’s delightfully playful dialogue that keeps things fizzing as Merry Me takes some unexpected turns, while reveling in key elements of Wycherley’s plot. There’s a lot of fun to be had with Jung’s dexterous, and magnificently silly wordplay that echoes Wycherley’s, including character names that strongly indicate who they are and their function in the play, like the poetic Sapph (married to a man, but clearly a woman of sapphic inclination), and Horne’s insatiable admirers, Lieutenant Wantmore and Sergeant WantItSoBadLikeYouWantATacoBellAtTwoAM. Jung takes particular joy in the Restoration inspired anal sex double entendres, that tickled my funny bone every time, like Sapph’s line to Willy when they arrive at his father’s tent, “Doesn’t he prefer you to enter through the back door?”

Cindy Cheung, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and David Ryan Smith in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As things continue, expect some Shakespearian boy drag and Hollywood movie-lovingly celestial beings with an axe to grind against humanity. In the thick of all the hilarity, what’s thrillingly refreshing is the focus on female pleasure and the queering of the womanizer archetype, while the play’s self-described “woke white man” Willy and his navel-gazing naval General father are sidelined, cuckolded figures of fun.

Marinda Anderson in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The staging and direction keep things fast flowing, while the performances are all first-rate with the cast balancing a degree of gleeful awareness along with a total commitment to their characters. Shaunette Renée Wilson is suitably seductive and magnetic, leading us through the work as the multiple orgasm (47 at a time) delivering Angel, while David Ryan Smith’s vibrant energy put me in mind of Harris Glenn Milstead aka Divine. It’s particularly fun to see him in such distinct dual roles (he also plays an angel). Ryan Spahn brings the perfect blend of entitlement and insecurity to Private Memnon and there’s an enjoyably awkward mismatched chemistry to his scenes with Nicole Villamil as his new bride, whose passion is immediately sparked during a chance meeting with Horne with whom she’s clearly much better suited. Marinda Anderson beautifully captures the doctor’s frustration and restraint, while helping to ground the play just enough to keep us fully involved in the zany plot.

Get thee to this relentlessly horny queer comedy that’ll have you merrily rolling in the aisles.

By James Kleinmann

Merry Me runs at New York Theatre Workshop until November 19th, 2023. For more details and to purchase tickets head to the NYTW website.

Marinda Anderson, Esco Jouléy, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Nicole Villamil in Merry Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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