There is a subset of Off Broadway musicals that feature five or so folks in a bar who sing of love and loss for a couple of hours before everyone goes home unhappy. The characters, that is, although the malaise all too frequently extends to the audience. The producers of “Play It Cool,” at the Acorn, at least have an ace in the hole: Sally Mayes, who grabs our attention every time they give her a song about jazz, love, or the thrill of wearing men’s suits, and thereby prevents the evening (and one suspects half the audience) from wisping away.
Story centers on a Hollywood nightclub, Mary’s Hideaway, hidden away without a sign outside the door. The actions starts with a 1940s-noir private detective wrapped in trenchcoat and stage fog, this despite the fact that the show is decidedly non-noirish and the time is 1953. This is a “funny” club, we are told, and not as in ha-ha funny. The private detective turns out not to be a private detective; he is a plainclothes cop, who comes into Mary’s Hideaway to collect his $200 payola and then just sits there through several days of plotting. The cop extorting money from Mary (Mayes) is, get this, Mary’s ex-brother-in-law — they are fond of each other; she makes him a sandwich — and despite having a loyal offstage wife turns out to have a secret of his own (although it ain’t no secret to anyone following the story).
Also on tap are a sexy gal singer, who is itching for a movie contract and calls Mary “mommy” (though not in the parent/child sense); a slimy MGM producer linked to the Arthur Freed unit; and a sweet young boy-singer just off the bus who is catnip to the older men. None of this matters so long as Mayes stands there and sings. Michael Buchanan, as the sweet young thing, turns out to have a fine voice himself; he even holds his own in his second act duets with Mayes. The rest of the cast simply performs the material, such as it is.
Show, initiated at the Celebration Theater in Los Angeles and further developed at both the NY Musical Theater Festival and the National Alliance for Musical Theater festival, comes to the commercial Off Broadway stage with five actors, three musicians, and no less than nine credited authors. Lyricist Mark Winkler, the only sole-practitioner among the group, boasts in his program bio that he is the coauthor of “Naked Boys Singing.” There are no naked boys here, although the boys kiss the boys and the girls kiss the girls and everybody sings.