“No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, “A Strange Loop,” at Playwrights Horizons.
The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and make it in New York, then adds layer upon layer of personal angst from a fresh and startling perspective.
Jackson’s hero is Usher (Larry Owens, sensational), an overweight, overwhelmed “ball of black confusion” trying to navigate without a compass the hierarchical white, black and gay worlds; his family’s religion, which condemns him for his sexuality; and an entertainment industry that isn’t interested in what he has to say. Oh yes, he’s also having an existential crisis as he deals with questions of reality, illusions, perceptions and identity. His biggest fear is that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of hopelessness where change is not possible.
Too much? Yes, but thanks to the sheer ambition of the work and the virtuosity of the production and performances, it nearly works.
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However, he’s less successful in self-guiding his own life and career, finding himself lost and lonely, sustained only by his talent, his hyper self-awareness and his wicked, spot-on humor. “Snagging a man is like finding affordable housing in this town,” he laments. “There’s a long wait list and the landlords discriminate.”
The humor can get pretty shady — and sexually explicit and bleak — and even Usher asks himself, “Can I really write this?” (Spoiler: He does.)
The idea of the musical that he is trying to write — and that we are seeing played out on stage — is a musical about a man trying to write a musical about a man trying to write a musical ad infinitum, all the while dealing with the voices in his head working to undermine and second-guess his artistic self. Even Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin make cameo appearances to give Usher what-for.
But as he deals with his doubts, desires and guilt, nothing holds him back more than the voices from his homophobic, reality show-ready, Popeyes-loving family.
The musical is bolstered by vibrant songs and cutting lyrics, razor-sharp direction by Stephen Brackett (“Be More Chill”), and kinetic choreography and movement by Raja Feather Kelly. There’s also a terrific six-person ensemble representing Usher’s ever-percolating inner voices/memories/fantasies, played out at whiplash speed.
Before the play-within-a-play-and-then-some concept gets too tiresome, the show receives a narrative boost when Usher, who aspires to be a writer who subverts expectations, is asked to ghost-write a script to a Tyler Perry gospel play — which he sees as his professional low-point. But it would please his church-loving parents because, as they often say, “Tyler Perry writes real life.” Though it repulses him, Usher takes the gig, using it to perhaps connect to his family and explore what “real life” is anyway.
He’s got the template of a Perry production down cold: “a sassy matriarch, a lonely spinster who loves God, a few ‘Color Purple’ quotes and hack buffoonery.” Usher pens “Show Me How To Pray” and it leads to a final confrontation with some harsh realities of his own family and faith.
But as the sweet theatergoer at “The Lion King” who earlier listened to his writer’s-block troubles advised him: “I do think you may be overcomplicating.”
It’s advice Usher and Jackson do not take as the loops and hoops that Usher has to go through in the show’s final quarter become entangled with careening themes and repetition. References to a previous death are unclear; his Tyler Perry moment — a nice coup de theatre — doesn’t quite pay off; and the resolution is one a therapist — or most audience members — would find painfully obvious pretty early on, even if Usher questions it to the very end.
Still, both Usher’s journey and Jackson’s show offer bracing insights into the endless strata of conflicts faced by those who are young, gifted and black — and so much more.