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For 2,400 years, people have worn wigs for myriad motives: to protect the skull from the sun, to avoid head lice, to display affiliation with a class or profession. But the characters in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out! at the Vineyard don hairpieces for one reason alone: Wigs are fabulous.
Sadly, Wig Out! is not. After a trio of semi-autobiographical plays (including the marvelous The Brothers Size, which played at the Public), McCraney has chosen a subject outside his immediate experience. Inspired by the documentary Paris Is Burning and interviews with transgender youths, McCraney sets his play in one of Harlem’s famed drag houses, the House of Light. The house’s members compete in balls that combine beauty contests and dance-offs. At the start of Wig Out!, the denizens of Light receive an invitation from their nemesis, the House of Diabolique, to a “Cinderella Ball”—a contest in which participants have until midnight to ready their outfits and routines.
McCraney has a cheerful and ready-made plot, the sort of “putting the team together” motif that drives so many sports movies. But plot doesn’t interest him particularly here, nor does character. McCraney conjures sufferings and heartbreaks, yet never fully fleshes out his characters. He seems to love this culture but he doesn’t know how to populate it.
Tina Landau, a director of rather more substance than style, can’t reconcile the dialogue-heavy scenes with the surrounding pageantry. She lends the play an erratic, clattery air unhelped by McCraney’s tendency to periodically halt the action so a character can turn to the audience and recite a monologue, which invariably begins: “My grandmother wore a wig.” It’s a Brechtian device, sure, as is the commentary provided by a trio of ladies called the Fates 3. But the world of Wig Out!, with its mores, rituals, and slang, already provides sufficient distance. And Brecht isn’t that much fun, while Wig Out! wants to be: The show aspires to the pop musical, the fashion show, the all-out melodrama. Near its close, one diva dismisses a suitor as “Too much sugar, not enough nutrients.” If only Wig Out! were as sweet.