Anyone who ever groaned while a mediocre actor droned on about his craft, or yawned as a pompous artist expounded at length on the integrity of his vision or the heroic struggle of his journey, will recognize the breed of self-anointed creative genius being delectably roasted by David Pittu in “What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling.” A bull’s-eye parody of third-rate Broadway-style musical theater as practiced by an untalented fictitious composer impervious to the repeated sting of failure, this affectionate homage to bad art and its purveyors is very funny stuff.
Pittu’s impressive work over the past three seasons — he’s played a maddening waiter in Harold Pinter’s “Celebration,” a reptilian Paul Wolfowitz in “Stuff Happens,” a lascivious Bertolt Brecht in “LoveMusik” and a series of shamelessly exaggerated comic stereotypes in “Of Thee I Sing,” “Is He Dead?” and “The Coast of Utopia” — has confirmed him as one of the most versatile and witty character actors on the New York stage.
The arch humor that seasons his performances is no less evident in Pittu’s writing — whether it’s dialogue peppered with theatrical in-jokes and smutty double entendres or the jaw-dropping lyrics of Sterling’s bafflingly (at least to him) underappreciated songs.
Sweeping onto the tiny stage in a flashy outfit (costumer Martin Pakledinaz channeling Carson Kressley) that tries way too hard for youthful personality, his hair an upswept crest of brassy highlights, Pittu’s Sterling bristles with confidence. Clearly, the show was constructed around the characterization, and even if it remains more an extended sketch or alternative cabaret act than a full-bodied theater piece, that characterization is strong enough to carry it.
Borrowing its setup from Paul Rudnick’s “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach,” “What’s That Smell” unfolds as an interview with Sterling (“prominently up-and-coming for over 20 years”) on a low-budget cable talkshow devoted to fanning the dying flames of musical theater.
The Rudnick echo is reinforced by having the original Mr. Charles, Peter Bartlett, play the fawning host of “Leonard Swagg’s CLOT — Composers & Lyricists of Tomorrow.” (The show is a treasure trove of awkward acronyms.) But who’s complaining? Nobody does opinionated uber-nellies like Bartlett, and with such tasty material, he’s priceless.
Often improving on the satirical formula of “Forbidden Broadway,” Pittu wrote the songs with composer-musical director Randy Redd, whose work here sits amusingly in the generic melodic range of 1970s Stephen Schwartz rejects. But it’s the frequently tasteless subjects and aurally assaultive rhymes that really get the laughs.
Performing highlights from his career at a white baby grand, Jacob rails against female Jewish repression in “He Died Inside of Me,” from his senior thesis musical adaptation of “Private Benjamin”; addresses his mother’s olfactory responses to New York and tacit disapproval of his lifestyle in the interrogative title song; rhapsodizes about a Montana youth’s discovery of international takeout in “Let Me Taste the World”; transforms the noisy rutting of his transgender roommates into “The Sounds of Human Loving”; and musically dramatizes “La Femme Nikita” in the ill-fated “Mademoiselle Death,” a potential Broadway breakthrough cruelly derailed by 9/11.
These hilarious atrocities are held up as overlooked gems while both Leonard and Jacob shudder at the triumph of a Pat Benatar jukebox musical called “Real Tough Cookie,” allowing the show to take aim both at misguided art and soulless commercial constructs. The obsessive bitchiness of musical theater fandom also gets a look-in via some sharp digs at Internet chatrooms.
The material is enhanced by Leonard’s enthralled delight and occasional backhanded swipes, and Jacob’s complete lack of irony or humility, oblivious to his pretentiousness even as he tosses in lofty references to Sufi poetry, cross-rhythmic Balinese gamelan music and Schoenberg. Insights into Jacob’s personal life; his identity as a gay, Jewish man; his lucklessness in love; his sexual addiction; and fraught relationship with his mother add droll texture.
There are also painful recollections of the twin scourges of the 1980s: “AIDS and the British takeover of the American musical theater.” In “Marty,” Jacob ostensibly mourns the loss of his late mentor but mostly the adulation he gave him.
Co-directed by Pittu and Atlantic a.d. Neil Pepe at a brisk clip, the show works best as a tight two-hander. Its intimate charms become slightly dissipated when additional cast members are brought on to perform the final two numbers: “That Goddamned Day,” about a dancer having breast implant surgery during the 9/11 attacks; and “Shopping Out Loud,” a paean to American consumerism that represents Jacob’s most aggressive bid for commercial acceptance.
Even if the final pair are the show’s weakest songs, Pittu’s lyrics are too clever not to raise a smile. But when the two self-absorbed queens blathering on for their own gratification are as much fun as Leonard and Jacob, all intruders are unwelcome.