There’s a certain kind of theater parody made by theater people, where the characters are either provincial rubes or name-dropping, Olivier-quoting grandees of their local scene, and theater is made out to be a kind of small-town cult for the flamboyantly uncool. It’s a safe space for group backrubs and vocal warmups that sound like abstract orgasms; for scarves and berets and carrying copies of An Actor Prepares in your “I Can’t, I Have Rehearsal” tote bag; for miniscule budgets, massive ambitions, enough earnestness to knock Oscar Wilde sideways; and, most of all, for dreaming of Broadway. Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest’s peerless 1996 mockumentary, is perhaps the paragon of the form. (If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this review and come back to me in one hour and twenty-four minutes.)
Like the art it’s satirizing, it’s a genre that can sometimes feel a little dippy and indulgent, but at its best it’s both outrageously funny and strangely, sweetly sublime. These are stories about big, soft hearts full of ardent, impractical desire. Broadway may as well be the moon. We don’t love these characters because they’re going to become successful astronauts. We love them because they’re going to build rockets out of cardboard and do their damndest to fly.
So, what happens when one of these stories actually lands in a Broadway theater? What happens when the impossible dream… comes true? That question hovers around Gutenberg! The Musical! before the show even gets underway, and it’s a question the production dances with but isn’t quite able to resolve. It’s a tricky one: Gutenberg!, written by Anthony King and erstwhile New York theater critic Scott Brown, was originally developed as a 45-minute one-act with the Upright Citizens Brigade back in 2005. Over the next few years it was fleshed out into a full show that made a splash Off Broadway and in London with its cheerfully low-fi, joke-a-minute antics. Alex Timbers came on board as director in 2006 and is back for the Broadway blow-out version. (Blow-outs are kind of his thing: He also worked with King and Brown on Beetlejuice, and has taken on elephants and windmills in Moulin Rouge! and politically charged disco dance floors in Here Lies Love.)
This time, though, the blow-out’s on a budget. Gutenberg! follows Doug Simon and Bud Davenport (here played to the hilt by the reunited Book of Mormon duo, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad), two stage-struck natives of Nutley, New Jersey, who have written a musical about the inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg. (Though when it comes to the historical accuracy of their magnum opus, Bud and Doug are pretty much these guys, just nicer.) They are here, they explain to us, to do a reading of their show: They will play all the parts and sing all the songs, with the help of “Jersey’s premier wedding band — The Middlesex Six!” Bud clarifies sheepishly, “We could only afford three of them.” It’s okay, Bud! The three-piece band, up on stage with the actors and conducted by keyboardist Marco Paguia, is excellent, rendering the show musically expansive and, with a variety of well-timed bells and whistles, materially adding to its comedy.
Bud and Doug are hoping to attract the backing of a producer so that they can take their baby to Broadway. Cue screeching brakes: But isn’t this Broadway? Here’s where this version of the show has to start doing a bit of gymnastics. Yes, this is “kind of” Broadway, says Bud, but we’re on “the ‘weird side’ of 7th Avenue,” and, actually, Bud and Doug have only been able to rent this theater for one night — thanks to the fact that Bud’s uncle died in a hang-gliding accident and left him some cash, and oh, also, Doug sold his parents’ house. But at this point, the boys have “literally no more money” and they need a bigshot to take notice so that their dream can last for more than a single performance.
Okay, sure — for the moment, we roll with it. This is clearly going to be a “don’t think too hard” affair. In Bud and Doug’s tale of the heroic, weirdly sexy Gutenberg, his illiterate inamorata Helvetica, and the various beef-trimming, song-singing inhabitants of the medieval German town of Schlimmer, the name of the game is all-out silliness — combined with an undercurrent of sweaty, nervy awkwardness in the manner of The Office. Gad is particularly good at this vibe. With his forced grin and rabbit-versus-tractor eyes, his Bud clearly idolizes the taller, more charming Doug. (“I wish I was gay! But I’m just… not,” Bud mourns in a moment of oversharing.) He’s also got an anxious tic, stupidly funny in Gad’s hands, of loudly repeating a phrase over and over again. Gad has created a beautiful weirdo, playing with and expanding beyond the outlines of “standard nerd.” He even manages to get real mileage out of the age-old character trope of needing an inhaler.
At the same time, Rannells is doing truly endearing work as the slightly-higher-status clown. His Doug is fastidious and, if not well informed, then at least highly informed — really shooting for professional, but passionate to the point of eroticism when released into performance. Rannells has a particular knack for lightly landing the show’s most nudgy-winky jokes: “Original stories with original songs? Nobody wants that.” And, as for the fit Doug’s rocking, costume designer Emily Rebholz deserves a special award for stipulating that he wear his argyle sweater vest tucked in. I can imagine Rannells seeing the design and thinking: That’s all I need to know.
Rannells and Gad are wonderfully matched and, it appears, having a real blast with each other. Their comic timing is wetsuit tight, their chemistry indisputable, their energy manic but precise and, crucially, unflagging. It has to be — it’s them and no one but them (well, and the Middlesex Three) for two hours, plus intermission. Which is, frankly, too long. Gutenberg!’s origins as a one-act remain palpable, and in its current form the show feels padded. Its stars are almost able to disguise that fact by throwing buckets of geek charisma at it, but despite their agility and generosity as performers, Gutenberg! could still come home in a tight 90-to-100 and leave everyone with a little more pep in their step.
Which isn’t to say it’s not funny! Very often—especially if you prefer your sticks slappy—it is. The show’s primary building block is the running gag… and the walking gag, and the pogo-sticking gag — basically any gag King and Brown can bring back around for a second, third, eighth, ninth outing. That takes actorly nimbleness to avoid diminishing returns, and Rannells and Gad are up to the task of keeping it funny each time they return to the motif of, say, Bud, kicking up his foot coyly and asking Doug, for the audience’s benefit, “But what is a metaphor?” or “But what is an eleven o’clock number?” or “What is foreshadowing?” (A metaphor, Doug explains, is “when you say one thing, and mean something else, but you’re not lying.”) The show also features a highly amusing barrage of trucker-hat-ography: We can tell which citizens of Schlimmer Bud and Doug are embodying at any given moment thanks to a parade of ballcaps labeled, for instance, “BOOTBLACK” or “DRUNK #1” or “MONK” (that’s Gad as the show’s villain, who eats scenery for breakfast and talks like a corrupt sheriff from the Ozarks). “Madcap” is given new meaning by the play’s hat-scapades, which include all manner of creatively rendered crowd scenes and kicklines.
The consummate pair of clowns at this production’s center also goes a long way in providing heart where the script on its own might have a bit less. There are instances where a fourth-wall-breaking period of cringiness, at the characters’ expense, drags on too long, and—least successful of all—there’s a recurring bit character in Bud and Doug’s play who lands with a nasty thud every time she appears. She is a tiny, evil flower girl wearing a hat that says “ANTI-SEMITE.” As Doug informs us, “Every important musical has to tackle at least one incredibly serious issue,” and since their play is set in Germany, “our serious issue… is anti-semitism.”
It felt legitimately disquieting to leave the theater after a bunch of gags about hating Jews, and to walk by the Fox News building, with its huge marquee of breaking headlines, scrolling through numbers of the dead in Israel. Of course, a show as light as Gutenberg! doesn’t spark real offense; but this particular line of foolery still felt a bit tin-eared and—kind of a big deal for a comedy—just not very funny. (Not to mention, unnecessary: Gutenberg! already has one “serious issue” that it yucks about constantly—illiteracy—and another related one that it mostly decides to let lie: the role of the church in hoarding knowledge and promoting ignorance.) Another semi-clanky moment occurs near the start of the show, when Doug explains to us that “only for tonight” will he and Bud be playing women, by wearing hats that say “WOMAN.” “In an actual production we would never cast a straight white man to play a woman,” says Doug dutifully. “Representation matters,” adds Bud. It gets a big laugh.
I’m all for mocking pretension and sanctimony, and I’m not trying to be a scold — all the same, these moments are suspended in murky territory. Who’s the audience? Are we making fun of ourselves to ourselves? Or are we appeasing the suspicions of folks who are just fed up with all this politically correct diversity, equity, and whatever? “Both” isn’t a great answer. It’s a sticky place to sit, and every so often, it clogs up Gutenberg!’s gears. In that way, it’s a bit like that initial question: Does a show about two dear, derpy dreamers trying to get to Broadway work on Broadway?
For the most part—thanks to its completely winning stars, and to the play’s own best stretches of joyful buffoonery—yes. And yet, something niggles. I won’t spoil it, but near the end, a series of events occurs that double-underlines the idea that, for Bud and Doug, a real moon landing is actually imminent. Guffman is at hand! The dream is coming gloriously, spectacularly, budget-burstingly true. It’s… strange.
On the one hand, Rannells and Gad have created really loveable characters, and it’s nice to watch them be happy. On the other hand, when a story that’s always been about aspiring suddenly becomes a story about winning, something may be gained, but something is also lost. I found myself missing the—and I say this in a spirit of solidarity—losers from the show’s beginning: those guys who, whether they knew it or not, were calling upon our minds’ eye in the heroic spirit of Henry V’s opening chorus. “Now, normally when you go see a hit Broadway musical, you usually expect to see a lot of amazing things,” says Doug. “Things like… animal puppets!”
Doug: Flying cars! And flying carpets!
Bud: And so many people pretending to be pop stars.
Doug: Well, there’s a bunch of those things in this show too. But tonight you’re gonna have to use your imagination to see them. For example, “Hey Bud — where you going?”
Bud: (walking in place, with total aplomb) Nowhere, Doug. I’m on a turntable.
Think when we talk of turntables, that you see them. When these two nerds from Nutley asked this of me, I was ready to follow them along the same scrappy path that might once have been tread by Gutenberg himself — the path from necessity to invention.
Gutenberg! The Musical! is at the James Earl Jones Theatre. For a complete list of shows to see on, Off, and Off-Off Broadway, visit here.