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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 23, 2024

Jenna Rose Husli, Wren Rivera, Alyse Alan Louis,
Phoenix Best, and Helen J Shen

Photo by Chelcie Parry
You've probably heard about it as "the musical about the penis-eating vagina." Yes, but Teeth aims to be something more–a horror musical that also takes in repression, misogyny, violence, and the generally f'd up state of relations between the sexes. Based on a 2007 cult film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, and with a book by Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs, music by Jacobs, and lyrics by Jackson, Teeth is sometimes hilarious and, yes, horrifying, and will make most of the men in the audience cross their legs a lot. But I have some issues with it.

Mainly, why is everyone on the Playwrights Horizons mainstage a caricature? It's evident from curtain-up, which thrusts us into the New Testament Village, a sanctuary in the town of Eden, where the pastor (Steven Pasquale, excellent as always, but he's capable of so much more) is shaming his young charges as he lectures on sin, exclusively that of the flesh. Most of the youthful congregation is female. They call themselves the Promise Keeper Girls, and, led by the pastor's non-biological daughter Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), they pledge to preserve their virginity and vanquish "the enemy," aka Satan. Only three boys are present: the pastor's rebellious son Brad (Will Connolly); the gay-and-ashamed-of-it techie Ryan (Jared Loftin); and the hunky-but-obedient Tobey (Jason Gotay), who lusts after Dawn, but chastely, very chastely.

There are easy laughs here, as the sophisticated New York audience chortles at this fire-and-brimstone leader and his clueless fundamentalist followers, who sing songs like "A Precious Gift" (meaning their maidenheads) and "Modest Is Hottest." Jackson's lyrics are uniformly well-turned, more so than what he wrote for A Strange Loop or White Girl in Danger, and he gets at least a B+ for neatness. Moreover, they're funny. Pastor, whipping Brad with a belt (and it's disconcertingly graphic) to beat the perfidy out of him: "Don't let Satan deceive you, he will try every trick, so keep your eyes turned to heaven and keep your hands off of your," well, you get the idea.

Would that the denizens of Eden felt like authentic people, but they exist mostly for mockery. Brad has joined a virtual-reality group called the Truthseekers, a male-domination bunch of bros who denounce the "feminocracy" and can physically feel the pain Brad describes to them, the first thing I didn't understand. (Pastor takes away Brad's VR headset, yet he still can consort with the Truthseekers, the second thing I didn't understand.) It seems that as tiny tots, Brad and Dawn innocently took off their bathing suits in the kiddie pool, and when he innocently put his finger where he shouldn't have, Dawn's you-know-what bit him. Turns out Dawn is a descendant of "Dentata," an ancient female deity who, Ryan discovers in Wiki research to aid Dawn, "was relentless in her butchering of everything male" and "wherever she went, left a gruesome bloody phallic trail." Forever repressed, lectured to, and forced into a sexual role that Phyllis Schlafly (look her up, kids) would have loved, Dawn, in a psychological turnaround that isn't easy to buy, begins to see her unlikely chompers as a gift, magically bestows them upon her fellow Promise Keeper Girls, and the phalluses start piling up onstage.

Jackson and Jacobs, whose music is catchier than the current norm, say in their script that they intend to demonstrate that "the ideologies within the piece are just as much a part of the horror of this show as the violence itself," but that gets lost. The characters are too thin to carry the weight of any profound ideology, and most of the crowd is probably there for the blood and goofiness. Both are in ample supply, and while along the way we're also treated to homophobia, incest, medical malpractice, and Raja Feather Kelly's unremarkable choreography, it's mainly the horror that registers, and the stupidity of this sheep-like flock meekly following a judgmental leader somewhere to the right of Jerry Falwell (look him up, kids).

The actors give all they can to this not-exactly-deep bunch, and Loftin even makes us care about Ryan, a truth-seeking misfit in a hostile environment he has no business being in. They sing well, and Palmer Hefferan's sound design keeps most of Jackson's often-worth-hearing lyrics audible. Adam Rigg's set is nothing special, nor are Enver Chakartash's costumes, though he does create a riotous red ensemble, nicely framed by Jane Cox and Stacey Derosier's hellish lighting, for the Promise Keeper Girls as they descend into diabolical, penis-snipping doings. Sarah Benson's direction revels in the grand guignol as it accumulates.

I enjoyed Teeth, but I do question the wisdom of ratcheting up the gore while tamping down any psychological insight that would make these characters more than foolish stereotypes. When you've reduced your dramatis personae to cardboard cutouts, your own arguments are being, pardon the pun, undercut.

Through April 28, 2024
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: