Anthony Johnston and Geneva Carr in Joshua Conkel’s “I Wanna Destroy You.” | MATTHEW MURPHY
If you crossed “The Devil Wears Prada” with “The Rachel Zoe Project” (an early episode with the nerdy, bow-tied Brad Goreski), you might spawn something like “I Wanna Destroy You,” the wicked romantic comedy now playing on Theatre Row.
Written by Joshua Conkel (“MilkMilkLemonade”), the warped plot centers on Beau (Anthony Johnston), who is having a really bad day. His desperately needy boss, Cecile (Geneva Carr), a famous romance novelist who honed her skills at Vassar, treats him like a dog. It’s a stifling day in June, and the air conditioner in his dumpy Bushwick apartment is on the fritz.
His depressive, longtime boyfriend Mick (a scruffy Kieran Mulcare) announces he’s high-tailing it back to Kentucky. Beau makes a last-ditch marriage proposal and is rebuffed. (Mick agrees in principle with the right to tie the knot, but calls marriage a “bullshit straight people thing.”) The day this all goes down — June 24, 2011, to be exact — is an historic one. Marriage equality for New York State is being considered — and the Legislature’s decision is imminent.
Oh yeah, and it’s Beau’s 30th birthday. Shouldn’t he have a real career by now, instead of catering to the whims of a she-devil?
Pushed very hard indeed, personal assistant refuses to let big bad city destroy him
Complicating matters is that the self-absorbed “Cuntessa” is getting married to a pompous cad (Jamie Jackson) and is in Bridezilla mode. Her wedding planner happens to be Daphne (Kathy Searle), an estranged friend of Beau and Mick who’s not nearly as successful as she seems. She has a dutiful assistant of her own, the calmly caustic Jim (Preston Martin) who, when he’s not tapping away on Grindr, throws shade in every direction.
Under the guidance of Dan Horrigan, “I Wanna Destroy You” is crisply paced and offers keenly observed characterizations; however, not all of the actors have mastered their demanding roles. It’s not until the second act that they find their footing.
Johnston’s self-deprecating Beau is sweetly appealing, earning our sympathy for his usually pliant demeanor — even when he starts being as monstrous as his boss. Carr is hilarious as the shrill Cecile, who, hopped up on booze and pills, goes ballistic when she discovers Beau committed a costly act of rebellion.
Daphne’s preening assistant Jim is written as a smug, one-note character and Martin plays him as such, but it’s a splendid note indeed.
The set, by David L. Arsenault, morphs efficiently to evoke Beau’s tiny apartment (yep, there’s a sad futon festooned with dirty clothes), Cecile’s posh Upper East Side pad, a dress shop, a bookstore, and various eateries. The backdrop is a marvelous peeling collage of a murky New York cityscape turned upside down, framed by iron beams like those found in a subway station. Anthony Mattana’s music and sound design are top-notch as well.
Turns out this wry comedy has more than just hijinks on its mind. Conkel uses the setup to examine the vagaries of interpersonal relationships, gay stereotypes, and the marriage equality issue.
Beau is outraged how gays are portrayed as, or subscribe to, tired stereotypes like hairstylists (the “ultimate servile fag job”), wedding planners, or materialists.
“Here you are fucking planning other people’s weddings when you yourself aren’t allowed to get married,” he says to Jim, who sees nothing wrong with wanting to cultivate beauty.
Beau explains he is repulsed by the whole “gay sidekick” thing, noting that on TV those kind of characters are never crucial to any storyline. He accuses Daphne of being a “faginizer” who exploits gay men to assuage her loneliness, and scoffs at her choice of living in Chelsea, “where the queens look just like the jocks that used to beat them up.”
To be a success in the big city, we must destroy each other. Cecile’s motto: “Be a cunt or the world just walks all over you.” Nice guys are naive “dodo birds” doomed to become extinct.
They say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. “I Wanna Destroy You,” which sounds like a threat from the unforgiving city itself, suggests that if you cannot make it here, there are brighter alternatives.
I WANNA DESTROY YOU | At Hand Theatre Company | Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row | 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Jun. 1: Tue., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | $18 at telecharge.com