When Joey Married Bobby
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
February 3, 2010
The Aristophanian "Happy Idea" of When Joey Married Bobby is summarily stated by the show's online publicity: Southern Socialite Sarah Edwards is running for "Christian of the Year" while her son is having a "Gay Wedding"! Nostalgically reminiscent in structure to the one-set romps of Joseph Kesselring or Kaufman and Ferber, the plot of When Joey Married Bobby winds in concentric circles around the seemingly ironic incongruity of an appearances-at-all-costs Conservative attempting to host the grandest of Southern weddings for her homosexual son. Sarah Edwards, desperate to maintain a rein on the circus brought about by her madcap familiars—including a sweetly-simple husband, an activist daughter, and an ever-growing horde of interlocutors and interlopers—hilariously ties herself into knots before her son can tie his own.
The best thing going for When Joey Married Bobby—and a very good thing, at that—is Tina McKissick in the role of Sarah Edwards. The knowingly vaudevillian script by John William Gibson and Anthony Wyatt Morris is a veritable showcase for McKissick, whose superb timing and comedic presence are on fine display. McKissick nails punchlines with the fierce precision of a belted champion, and complements her delivery with nervous facial contortions that remind of Cheri Oteri yet are worthy of the best of Lucille Ball.
McKissick is supported by fine turns from Rebecca Dealy and Deborah Johnstone as Sarah's aforementioned daughter and nosy step-mother. All wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm, Dealy's Sally Joe is a delight, and it is to Dealy's great credit that her character rarely feels like a mouthpiece for the playwrights' own political ruminations. As flask-flashing, cross-eyed, blue-haired Ivy Edwards, Johnstone makes a welcome addition with an airy pizzazz of old show folk.
What prevents this show from being a rip-snorting downtown doppelganger for the likes of MTC's The Royal Family are grating performances from functionary characters. Individuals intended to serve as barometers of "normalcy" within Sarah's sphere of manic influence, the straight men—and, oddly, the quibble is largely to be had with the men—are given few comedic lines or lazzi, yet almost uniformly attempt the same stratospheric energy and tics of their clownish counterparts. What plays as whimsy in the hands of the likes of McKissick or Johnstone comes off instead as mugging and mawkish. Whether a choice on the part of director Gibson or an unfortunate tendency on the part of his performers, the decision to veer from verisimilitude cuts twice; most of the characters in When Joey Married Bobby are offered moments of dramatic revelation or sincerity, yet when they arrive for those members of the ensemble who have sacrificed their credibility with the audience, the effect feels forced, manipulative, and self-serving.
This is unfortunate, as the script of When Joey Married Bobby features literate witticisms and allusions. Indeed, Gibson and Morris (credited as the writing entity William Wyatt) have infused their play with appreciated social commentary and peppered references to Sarah Palin and pre-existing conditions. When Joey Married Bobby is clearly meant as red meat for Blue Staters; cheap shots are taken, though few may mind. Occasionally, as in an attempt to treat a character's disclosure of his HIV status as both comedic fodder and melodramatic matter, the playwrights' lack of subtlety jars, but on the whole When Joey Married Bobby shows remarkable intelligence and awareness of its theatrical antecedents.
One of those influences appears to be a certain genre of slightly antiquated gay-themed camp theatre, as evidenced by the poster outside of Theatre 80 featuring a topless, muscled hunk—no such image appears in the play—and the prominent placement of legendary drag queen Lady Bunny in all of When Joey Married Bobby's publicity materials. Though Lady Bunny's appearance as Charity Divine—a devout churchgoer who develops sympathy pregnancy symptoms during the process of adopting an African child—is a gracious, glamorous contribution that makes for a highlight of the evening, it amounts to little more than a featured cameo.