I'll Be Damned and The Little Death Get Some Religion
I'll Be Damned isn't for the squeamish. But, like its predecessor on the Vineyard Theatre stage, Avenue Q, the show takes the feel-good vocabulary of the American musical and translates it into feel-weird slang—call it a bemusical. You may commence squirming after the first moment, as its hero, the wide-eyed, home-schooled, and friendless Louis Foster, sings a saccharine number about how the birthday party he's throwing for himself will gain him friends. Dazzlingly well cast, Jacob Hoffman plays this icky character with so much childlike gusto that you pray he isn't like that in real life.
Though this Jaradoa Theater production is set in the '80s, perhaps to justify barfy costumes, Louis has the bad qualities of Millennials, not Gen-Xers—he's entitled, virginal, and coddled by his helicopter mom (the hilarious Mary Testa). Accordingly, no one comes to his roller-disco birthday party, and in despair, Louis prays to God "or whoever" for a friend. Enter Satan. Kurt Robbins's likeable, cute Satan. Which is why things get dangerous, hinting of man-boy love. Though Louis is 19, he dresses and acts younger—knee pants, rugby shirt, whining, weeping. Satan's first gesture is to pay $1,500 for Louis's party—a real sugar-daddy move. The Devil then convinces Louis, who is actually "God's favorite human," to sell his soul for the price of a friend so that Satan may return to heaven.
Echoing Bedazzled and Faust—and South Park—the two teleport around town looking for this friend, but as they fail, Satan realizes he's got a man-crush on Louis. When Louis's mother finds out about the pact, she doesn't approve, naturally. She means to enlist the Pope to break the contract, but Louis cleaves to his unlikely pal, and it becomes difficult to see the story as anything but a metaphor for coming out to one's family: They may "demonize" your first lover, who's likely to be older (and maybe closer to the Devil than Robbins), and it may become necessary for you to go through hell (metaphorically for you, literally for Louis) in order to arrive at some measure of peace.
Without the tension between its unconventional values and its conventional songs, though, I'll Be Damned wouldn't seem as alive as it does. It only makes sense that Louis is God's favorite human if we suspect that the tale is, at heart, a pink love triangle.
The Little Death: Vol. 1, at the Incubator Arts Project, takes the opposite approach, flaunting conventional values against an unconventional background. Composer Matt Marks, who writes what he calls "emotionally manipulative pop songs," has staged a song cycle he describes as a "post-Christian nihilist pop opera." On a set cleverly dressed to resemble a Midwestern high school gym, Marks and Mellissa Hughes, a talented singer, gesture their quasi–Robert Wilson way through Marks's repetitive techno score, which sounds like MGMT's outtakes with Annie Clark on vocals, played on a broken boombox at full volume. The barest plot emerges, of Christian chastity besmirched by sex, followed by piety, unresolved. The best moment is when the performers reveal a stained-glass window, a surprising reminder that, despite its avant-garde credentials, the theater space is still in a church. Too cool to be Christian, too Christian to be cool, the show hovers in the place between irony and sincerity, which, it turns out, is called blah.
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