There exists a time-honored sub-category of queer theater I call the “Crucible” genre. That’s when a group of gay men with divergent personalities gather for a special event or weekend getaway, often in an idyllic gay enclave. After an initial rush of alcohol consumption, snappy repartee, camping it up, and stripping down to speedo, briefs, or nothing, pretenses melt and long-simmering rancor comes to a toxic boil. At play’s end, at least one character looks himself in the mirror and vows to change. Or not.
The godfather of this genre is Mart Crowley’s 1968 “The Boys in The Band,” where a homosexuals-only birthday party in a New York apartment flies off the rails, ending in tears and self-loathing. Another iconic example is Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” an AIDS-era drama that follows a group of gay friends over three weekends at a lakeside house in upstate New York.
Michael MacKenzie’s zany farce, “Stormy Weather,” is set on Fire Island at the height of a fierce gale. “Daniel’s Husband,” by Michael McKeever, revolves around a jovial dinner party where a quarrel about gay marriage ruins everything. Drew Droege tweaks the canon with his solo show, “Happy Birthday Doug,” by portraying a range of progressively sloshed, bitchy queens.
The latest entry into the Crucible genre is “To My Girls,” a laugh-out-loud, albeit uneven comedy by JC Lee now at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. Directed by Stephen Brackett, the play updates the formula to make it feel of-the-moment, though it’s not nearly as potent as its famous predecessors.
The creators have taken pains to craft a play with an appealing, multi-generational, racially diverse cast. Age and ethnicity are dictated in the script. Which is essential to the inevitable debates about race, privilege, and social responsibility. There’s even a variation in political leanings — one character voted for the “orange dipshit.”
A major twist is evident before the action even begins. Instead of the expected über-stylish, queer-eyed furnishings, the detailed set of a midcentury modern house, courtesy of Arnulfo Maldonado, is a “tacky-ass” riot of clashing Jonathan Adler-esque décor. Barstools are topped with white, deep shag cushions. There’s wallpaper with a seashell pattern (in the desert?). The palm tree by the pool out back is fake.
JC Lee has spiked the dialogue with copious in-jokes about Britney, Barry’s, and Sean Cody. The play pokes fun at LGBTQ folks’ fixation on political correctness and randomly “reclaiming” words many find offensive. The boys call each other “faggot,” for example.
All ensemble members boast Broadway credits, and the performances are first-rate. What’s more, the actors make us believe this motley crew are actually friends — no small feat.
Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson, “On the Town”), a cute, self-absorbed white gay male from West Hollywood who’s pushing 40, has organized a weekend at an Airbnb in Palm Springs. He’s an Instagay promoting “a handful of brands to a mob of thirsty faggots.” Curtis has reunited those he desperately loves because the “fucking plague” put their lives on hold for two years. “We’re a family, and family is forever,” he says. Never mind that their little family is highly dysfunctional.
His longtime friend, Castor (Maulik Pancholy, “Grand Horizons”), is a “loud” Southeast Asian-American partial to wearing flowing kaftans while the others cavort in skimpy bathing suits. The boys have a tender yet tetchy rapport. After Curtis vetoes his request for a house meeting, Castor deadpans, “Jesus. For a top you have a lot of fussy bottom energy.”
Leo (Britton Smith, “Be More Chill”) is a clever, exuberant Black man in his thirties who has a sizable following on multiple social media platforms. After flying in from New York City, he enters the house recording a video for his followers, then does another one minutes later. He calls Curtis his “white friend.”
“We will frequently refer to one another with confusing gender pronouns because this is what we do,” he says. That explains the play’s title, a reference to the toast that the friends, raising their glasses of margaritas, offer to each other.
Leo’s goal for the weekend is to produce an elaborate click-bait video showcasing the gang dancing in alluring drag outfits and wigs. Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Castor calls it a “godforsaken millennial cry for validation.”
The Airbnb host Bernie (the veteran out-and-proud actor, Bryan Batt), a white man in his 60s, lives next door and represents the old guard. He’s been doing drag for years and prides himself on his recent turn as Ursula. “I have over a hundred likes on my signature number,” he boasts. The name of the song? “Poor Unfortunate Hole.”
Complications arise when Castor brings Omar (Noah J. Ricketts, “Frozen”) to frolic in the hot tub after a night out at Quadz, an actual bar in Palm Springs. Castor schools the impossibly ripped younger guy, who has stripped to his underwear, on queer history, recounting when gay men concealed their identities in chatrooms in the 1990s.
“Look, I get that people your age are unapologetically living their gender fluid non-binary pansexual fantasies and I love that for you,” Castor says. “But for most of history gay people have had to hide who we are.”
The following day, Curtis reveals secrets which upend the delicate balance of the house. Nerves become frayed, fingers are pointed, feelings are trampled.
Not only does the weekend hit the skids, but “To My Girls” loses its footing as well. The plot veers from madcap to absurd, and the bloodstained climax is a head-scratcher. For all their socially conscious banter, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for these egotists. What ultimately shines through, however, is a witty, heartfelt celebration of being gay and being part of a chosen family, through better and worse.
As the sage Bernie says, you can’t put a price on community. “If after the last few years we haven’t learned how much we still need each other, then honestly, what’s the point?”
“TO MY GIRLS” | Second Stage | Tony Kiser Theater | 305 W. 43rd St. | Through April 24 | $69-$125; 2st.com | 95 mins with no intermission