I Got Fired: A Semi-Autobiographical Sort-of-True Revenge Musical
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
October 2, 2010
Almost everyone has been fired at some point. I certainly have. And with the economy as it is, doubtless I have lots of company. It's one of those dirty secrets you only discover when you join the club and a gaggle of sympathetic friends overwhelm you with their own tales of getting the axe. Well, add to the gaggle Keith Varney, who's not just shouting his story from the rooftops—he's belting it in his new musical I Got Fired at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
In what Varney terms a "revenge musical," he plays "Keith" (both as narrator and character), a composer working as a long-term temp who suddenly finds his cushy day job in Manhattan Medical College's Post-Graduate Studies Department disrupted upon the arrival of a new, more career-minded employee. I won't go into specifics about the kind of work Keith and his coworkers do since—despite a valiant attempt on Varney's and director Steve Bebout's parts—it makes for some of the more confusing moments in the show. I also won't divulge the exact reason for Keith's firing as that's the major dramatic question. The story begins, however, with two new employees—Steven (played by Devon Goffman with a lovely, quiet simplicity), a college friend of Keith's in need of work, and Jenny (the effervescent Kelly Karbacz), the above-mentioned go-getter. Over the course of the show, Keith's desire to maintain the status quo, Steven's desire to have his work recognized, and Jenny's desire for power, at least as it exists in that world, collide to entertaining but underwhelming effect.
I had high hopes during the titular opening number. It is a brave, unabashed, and foul-mouthed translation of the anger, frustration, and disappointment one feels walking out the door of a job for the last time. Coupled with the song's later, other-colored reprise, it's clear that Varney gets it. Which is why I was disappointed to find that the show bookended by that number lacks its emotional resonance.
This is not to say there aren't resonant and memorable numbers. The sci-fi themed duet "Green-Painted Girl" between Chen and Rick (EJ Zimmerman and Collin Leydon) is charming and the Les-Miz-esque "Mike Calls in Sick" is hilariously accurate as sung by Michael Thomas Holmes, channeling hints of Bobcat Goldthwait. My problem has to do with Keith. I just don't care that he got fired. As some artists tend to be in their day jobs, Keith feels entitled to have a job where he doesn't have to work too hard and that doesn't interfere with his art. And when someone messes with that, they—literally—become the villain. As this is a "revenge musical," I have a hard time believing that the real Jenny was the two-dimensional "bitch" (a word tossed around way too liberally and without consequence here) Varney makes her out to be. And even if she was, the musical's revenge essentially seems to be for ruining Varney's good time, and that's hardly compelling. Harsh as it sounds, there are way too many people being fired, let go, downsized, not hired, and the rest these days for me to feel sympathy when a character loses a job he resents and doesn't want in the first place. While there are other, more sympathetic characters around him, it's unfortunate that a character like that is at the show's center.
In addition to the lack of a sympathetic central character, I found other aspects of the show disconcerting. Kathy, the office boss (played with a Mama Rose brassiness by Toni DiBuono) tosses around racial gags—"sounds like a Mexican garage sale in here"—that seem to be an attempt at imitating un-PC musicals like Avenue Q, except that they are shocking simply for shock's sake. Kathy's blatant racism is never addressed or acknowledged in any way, something I could feel in the audience's progressively tepid responses to the jokes as the performance went on. This and other aspects of the show—the timeline was highly confusing, some characters other than Keith had an awareness of being in a musical but not others for no apparent reason, etc.—gave the impression of a hastily composed piece drawn too much from reality and subjected to too little dramaturgical scrutiny. As much as Varney protests in the program notes that "events have been distorted, combined, changed or adapted," I have my doubts. Maybe there was a foul-mouthed, racist boss or an Asian accountant ("who you?") or a well-endowed, sultry Latina in Varney's office, but in performance, they simply come across as stereotypes.
At one point, Keith professes to not want to be rich or famous but just "create something relevant." In I Got Fired, Varney has created something that may be personally relevant, but not universally. If it goes onto another incarnation somewhere, I would urge him—and dramaturg Jack DePalma—to revisit that original, raw impulse so evident in his opening number. He's got a playful ear, a terrific cast, and an inventive director. He just missed the mark this time.