Buy a ticket to “The Actor’s Rap,” and you’ll see two productions. There’s the play, which stages the tension between serious art and unabashed commercialism, and then there’s the hype machine surrounding the play, which embodies the very same thing. Both are engaging, though they might be more effective if they stopped begging for attention.
J. Kyle Manzay oversees this enterprise, serving as writer, director, producer and star. An Off Broadway actor who has yet to find his breakout role, he’s professionally similar to his character L.J., a “serious thespian” who loses a film gig to a rapper named Datz Ridiculous (Shaun Cruz).
L.J. and his actor friends are so furious about black artists being sidelined by bankable hip-hop stars they decide to fight back. Accordingly, the play is structured as a boxing match. TV monitors announce each scene as a round, and giant banners showing illustrations of L.J. and Ridiculous dominate the set, like posters for a heavyweight match-up.
Manzay tempers his outrage with humor, and sometimes the comedy works. The actors decide to make a statement by kidnapping Ridiculous, and the company shows a flair for slapstick, tripping all over themselves as they try to act tough. It’s particularly funny when they challenge the rapper to an “act-off,” forcing him to recite Shakespeare while tied to a chair. Turns out he’s pretty good, which makes his captors furious.
Out of this awkward gang, Glenn Gordon shines as Romo, a political playwright who performs angry solo shows. Thesp’s spastic physical choices make him a lovable doofus. Cruz finds humor in the opposite extreme, playing Ridiculous with level-headed cool as he explains the business of hip-hop.
But overall, too much of the comedy is sophomoric and cruel. A character called “Gay Waiter” only exists to mock sissies, and a major plot twist hinges on a man’s stuttering problem. These desperate, hateful bits cheapen everything around them.
Manzay’s direction also begs the audience to laugh. He lets several perfs devolve into hamminess, and inserts physical comedy even when it slows the pace.
A more experienced helmer could address these problems. Collaborators need to be paid, however, and as he confessed in a post-curtain speech at the perf reviewed, Manzay doesn’t have the money. In fact, he went on at length about needing to sell tickets, then rapped about his broke cast members.
In other words, he blurred the line between L.J. and Ridiculous, blending art with the quest for a payday. Meanwhile, “Actor’s Rap” T-shirts were hawked in the lobby, and thesps used their program bios to solicit calls from agents.
No one’s denying that theater is a business or that Manzay is a good-natured shill. But still, the hard sell is exhausting. Merchandising is fine, but if the work itself doesn’t have the loudest voice, the artist risks losing credibility.