When the Clothes Make the Man

Playwright Matthew Lopez. | JESSICA CHASE

Playwright Matthew Lopez. | JESSICA CHASE

I’ve never done drag in my life,” explained Matthew Lopez, 38, sitting cross-legged in shorts and a T-shirt on the grass at the Hudson River Park’s Christopher Street pier recently. His first exposure to drag, the playwright (“The Whipping Man”) and screenwriter (HBO’s “The Newsroom”) said came “when I was a teenager. There was one gay bar in my town, called the Fiesta, in Panama City, Florida –– where the play is set –– that had drag performances.”

The play in question is “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” a new work by Lopez now getting an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre right down Christopher from the pier where we met before a recent performance. (See David Kennerley’s review.) “Georgia McBride” is the story of a young married, soon-to-be father (Dave Thomas Brown) who gets fired from his bar job as an Elvis impersonator and dons a dress to make money as a drag performer. He’s not gay and learns a thing or two about himself in the process of a nightly transformation into wig and heels.

“My junior or senior year of high school, I would go to the bar and hang out with the drag queens in their dressing rooms and watch them get ready,” Lopez recalled. “I’d listen to them banter, watch the process of them putting on their faces and padding. I was 17 years old, and it was great. I loved it. Without totally understanding what I was seeing, I was absorbing the theatricality of it. I would watch the pieces come together, and then go into the audience and see them perform. I think I had a deeper sense than the rest of the audience of what it takes to do drag. I’ve always had a great respect for that.”

Playwright Matthew Lopez delves into drag with “Georgia McBride”

Lopez calls “Georgia McBride” a fairy tale.

“As a young gay boy who was enthralled with the theater and with storytelling, it clearly got under my skin,” he said. “The intention of the play has always been to tell the story of transformation, not just of the main character, but of all the characters in the play, and drag is the springboard. The play is at its heart a fable of change and discovery and growth.”

Dave Thomas Brown, Matt McGrath, and Keith Nobbs in Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride," directed by Mike Donahue. | JOAN MARCUS

Dave Thomas Brown, Matt McGrath, and Keith Nobbs in Matthew Lopez's “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” directed by Mike Donahue. | JOAN MARCUS

Casey, the unemployed Elvis impersonator, gets help in developing the drag persona of Georgia McBride (a spangled and fringed Frankenstein’s daughter composite of Lisa Marie Presley, Reba McEntire, and the Judd Family) from the two drag performers (Matt McGrath and Keith Nobbs) that bar owner Eddie (Wayne Duvall) brought in to replace him. Casey hides his new job –– and his growing love of his new stage identity –– from his wife (Afton Williamson). The play incorporates a lot of crowd-pleasing lip-synching numbers choreographed by Paul McGill that read like a performance history of drag legends, including like Charles Busch, Lypsinka, and the Lady Chablis of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” fame, as well as the newer generation of stars found on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Director Mike Donahue, said Lopez, calls the play “the story of a boy who puts on a dress and becomes a man.”

“There is a line in the play, ‘The only thing holding us back are the limits of our imagination,’ and I think that includes what we ourselves are capable of and the scope of our world,” noted Lopez, who married his partner of 10 years this past summer.

There’s a timeliness in the play’s exploration of how the personal can reverberate throughout an entire community, according to Lopez.

“When the main character is given the opportunity to dig deep within himself to find something beautiful, it changes his whole world and everyone in it,” he said.

THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE | MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre,121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Bedford Sts. | Through Oct. 11: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$99; mcctheater.org | One hr., 35 mins., no intermission