×

Off Broadway Review: ‘A Strange Loop’

With:
Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper,  L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles.

1 hour 40 minutes

“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.

Though Usher wishes he has the success of the same-monikered singer-songwriter, his name here more aptly reflects the lowercase day-job as aisle guide to tourists at Disney’s “The Lion King.”

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.

Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop'

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats: $99 top; reviewed June 12, 2019, Opened June 17, 2019. Reviewed June 12. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: A Playwrights Horizons presentation in association with Page 73 of a musical in one act with book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson.

Creative: Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Alex Hawthorn; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen; music director, Rona Siddiqui; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht.  

Cast: Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper,  L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles.

More Legit

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content