Life can be a drag. Especially when you’re a down-on-your-luck Elvis impersonator trying to make a living in Florida’s Panhandle. Such is Casey’s (Dave Thomas Browne) predicament in The Legend of Georgia McBride, a new play by Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man).
Casey isn’t the only one struggling to make ends meet. His boss, Eddie (Wayne Duvall) decides that the bar needs a serious boost of business and when his distant cousin, Bobby—a.k.a. Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath)—calls him in search of work, Eddie scraps Elvis 2.0 in favor of a drag duo that also includes alcoholic and foul-mouthed Rexy (Keith Nobbs).
Casey is none to happy, especially with his newly pregnant wife, Jo (Afton Williamson), at home. Things look pretty dismal until Rexy passes out mid-show and Casey reluctantly steps in to deliver perhaps the worst Edith Piaf impersonation known to humankind. But a spark is ignited (along with plenty of tips) and before you know it, Casey is the darling drag superstar of northwestern Florida—except that sweet Jo is kept in the dark. Such is the thinly veiled theatrical convention driving Lopez’s sitcom-heavy play, which delivers plenty of one-liners but rarely goes below the sequined bustier in terms of character development.
Saddled with heavy-handed Floridian accents that sound more like Kansas City via Mama’s Family, the ensemble delivers mostly charming performances that elevate Lopez’s script. Browne is an endearing an enthusiastic boy next door—the type you think might have an easier life because of his good looks, though fate has a different plan. His optimism and honesty is infectious and plays well against McGrath’s highly stylized Tracy.
With a purposefully thin, affected voice, Tracy’s drag persona is mostly one-liners and there’s a bit of theatrical irony when she tells Casey, “There are a million things you need to know about drag but the only thing you need to know right now is that drag is about persona. Who are you? What’s your story? You’re a woman now.”
There’s only one scene toward the end of the play when we see Tracy out of drag as Bobby, and it offers just a glimpse of the man behind the make-up: a resourceful, perhaps even bitter, middle-aged drag performer worn out from a life of unfulfilled expectations. “If this is goodbye, don’t expect any tearful scenes from me,” says Bobby. “I am long past crying over men who can’t hack it.”
It’s actually Rexy who delivers a monologue worthy of an 11 o’clock number after she returns to reclaim her spot in the show, telling Casey that drag is more than sequins and wads full of tip money. “Drag ain’t a hobby, baby. Drag ain’t a night job. Drag is a protest,” she proclaims. “Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.” She also references the “shitty, homophobic town” in which they’re working, though that never seems to be an issue that arises or is addressed among other characters.
Casey has his own misgivings about the concept of drag and how that may or may not define is masculinity, feeling at one point “like a fag.” These reiterations of self-loathing get neatly resolved after a brief conflict with his wife but it begs the question if Lopez could have dug a bit deeper into the characters’ backstories. Tracy, given sequined nuance by McGrath’s tightlipped performance, is a portrait only partially painted.
Drag as an art form as well as an integral (and occasionally controversial) part of gay history continues to resonate with people around the globe. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2 will resurrect some favorite personalities, yet real world politics took a different stance earlier this year when drag performances were banned from certain events at Scotland Pride, saying that “some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke.”
There are plenty of well-earned laughs in The Legend of Georgia McBride, and while the play pays honest homage to one aspect of gay culture and attempts to transcend its impact by telling its story through a straight man’s viewpoint, its false eyelashes and high heels occasionally mask truths still waiting to be told.
The Legend of Georgia McBride
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through October 4