In their latest hurtle through theatrical history, the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) poses a tricky question: Can you sell out when you’re barely getting paid? Chautauqua!, a pleasantly low-budget work, trades high art for vulgar kicks. The show draws inspiration from the Chautauqua lectures—events that began as talks on political progressivism, but increasingly resembled vaudeville—that traversed the country in the early 20th century. Similarly, Chautauqua! opens with a high-falutin’ discussion of performance history, then descends into a perilously reluctant striptease. Another cheerful lapse in integrity: P.S.122’s artistic director tried to bribe me and The New York Times reviewer with whiskey.
As ever, the design’s a treat, with painted flats, potato-sack curtains, and faux down-home outfits, and the performers are wonderfully good, particularly stripper James P. Stanley and songstress Jesse Hawley. The cast speeds through “Regional and Local History,” “Dance of the Cossacks,” “The Culture Debates,” “Bright Lights,” and a dozen other items. The show is itself a bright light in the season—or maybe that’s just the whiskey talking.