Metro Weekly

‘Which Way to the Stage’ Review: Wicked Ways

A comic love letter to theater fans, 'Which Way to the Stage' hits its marks with affection and pinpoint accuracy.

Which Way to the Stage? — Photo: Daniel Rader

Ana Nogueira’s perceptive comedy Which Way to the Stage (★★★★☆) celebrates and sends up all things theater in its well-constructed tale of two New York City actors, Jeff and Judy, whose friendship is tested when handsome stranger Mark comes between them.

The play, currently at Signature Theatre, generalizes shamelessly about theater folk, yet nails several very specific targets, from hyper-vigilant stage-door stans to sexually ambiguous heartthrobs like Mark who leave gay guys and straight girls alike hopefully pondering.

Director Ethan Heard captures that specificity first of all in the casting. Dani Stoller and Mike Millan match up fruitfully as besties Judy and Jeff, both talented, ambitious performers who worship at the altar of the performer they mutually idolize: Broadway star Idina Menzel.

Michael Tacconi is well-cast, too, as toothsome, tousle-haired Mark, also an actor, though, relative to Jeff and Judy, much less intense in his devotion to craft and career. Tacconi pulls off Mark’s true talent, his understated seductiveness, a cunning tool for success on and off the stage.

 
Which Way to the Stage? — Photo: Daniel Rader

Judy is definitely susceptible to Mark’s charms when they meet at an audition for a summer stock production of Avenue Q. But she leaves unsure whether he was coming on to her, or was in fact hitting on the bombshell actress (Nina-Sophia Pacheco) who also showed up at the audition. Then again, Jeff meets Mark, and maybe Mark comes on to him, too.

Those “I don’t like labels” guys can be painfully confounding, especially within the musical theater space, but Mark knows it pays to play to every audience. The script makes the character savvy enough to acknowledge his pretty privilege, while the performance and direction ensure he’s just unaware enough to still be funny.

Jeff and Judy are practically Idina Menzel stalkers, but they’re funny, rather than sad, for obsessively waiting outside the theater where “the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem” belts her way through If/Then almost every night.

 
Which Way to the Stage? — Photo: Daniel Rader

Of course, Nogueira has baked in a bounty of pithy musical theater punchlines, and inside jokes tailored to fans of the esteemed Miss Dazeem, among other divas of the Great White Way. We meet Jeff and Judy excitedly debating who did a better Mama Rose, Bernadette Peters or Patti LuPone, and agreeing on at least one count: both divas did it better than Imelda Staunton.

Jeff and Judy disagree vigorously and often — over musicals, over Mark, over Jeff’s drag interpretation of Idina Menzel, over the very idea of female impersonation as entertainment. The hyper-competitive pair even argue over which of them is the star of their story and which one’s the sidekick. Maybe they’re both the sidekick, or maybe neither is.

Nogueira raises a number of intriguing questions about the roles the friends play in one another’s lives, and the roles they’re allowed to play onstage. Will talent be enough to propel Judy to the next phase of her career, or is she missing something that comes fairly naturally to some of her peers? Can Jeff, who embraces his feminine fabulousness, find his place in an industry that welcomes queer folks but prefers to thrust straight-presenting dudes to the top?

Squaring off like opponents in the ring within the compact forum of Richard Ouellette’s versatile brick-wall set, the characters hash out their differences in engaging, even-handed tête-à-têtes. Each member of the cast — including Pacheco, who doubles as a ditzy bachelorette at a bar — adds to the lighthearted, if unsubtle, skewering of certain amusingly recognizable types. And recognizable actresses, with Stoller delivering a spot-on Bernadette Peters.

The company falters only in the final scene, in which a pivotal drag performance doesn’t ring a bell as the bold, brilliant revelation the play seemingly intends it to be. Or perhaps Heard’s direction aims towards a different intention, which just doesn’t transmit as clearly as the rest of Nogueira’s well-wrought exploration into the roles we perform for money, for art, for love, or just for the applause.

Which Way to the Stage runs through Jan. 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave. in Arlington, with a Pride Night performance on Jan. 20. Tickets are $40 to $90. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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