Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Merry Me

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 31, 2023

Cindy Cheung, Marinda Anderson, Nicole Villamil,
Esco Jouléy, and Shaunette Renée Wilson

Photo by Joan Marcus
Whoo-whee! It's a good thing Hansol Jung's Merry Me, at New York Theatre Workshop, hired an intimacy coordinator (Rocío Mendez). A great deal of shagging permeates the action, of various genders and identities in various permutations, and even the nonsexual activity is rife with gropes, kisses, and filthy talk. The seven actors carry it off with abandon, and Merry Me, billed on NYTW's site as a "queer cocktail of restoration comedy and the Greeks, served with a heavy garnish of ridiculous," revels in a happy nose-thumbing at reality and frequent excursions into fantasies, sexual and otherwise. It's undisciplined, and it's a hoot.

The wackadoodle atmosphere begins with the setting, a Navy base on an island near an enemy state. Rachel Hauck's abstract set is dominated by what appears to be a backdrop of an overhead shot of the base, with rooftops or tents, some dislodged, that occasionally light up. We know right away to take nothing literally, with the entrance of a narrator-angel (Shaunette Renée Wilson) claiming to hail from Angels in America. This angel, though, is less lofty than Tony Kushner's. She's jokey and raunchy, and the jocularity continues with the other characters' names: The Memnon family, headed by General Aga (David Ryan Smith), abetted by his sex-starved Wife (Cindy Cheung), son Private Willy (Ryan Spahn), and Willy's wife Sapph (Nicole Villamil). The only doctor on the base is a psychiatrist, Jess O'Nope (Marinda Anderson), and the object of most of the other six's affections is Lt. Shane Horne (Esco Jouléy), a major piece of work.

Horne, perpetually chasing what she calls "the merries," is a rabidly oversexed lesbian with much-commented-on "massive biceps" (Jouléy identifies as nonbinary). Horne is just out of solitary for diddling the general's wife, and over Merry Me's 90 minutes she also seduces the doctor, the younger Mrs. Memnon, and two lady prison guards we never meet. It's so rare to see a happy, libidinous lesbian onstage, and Jouléy practically kicks their heels up in glee.

What a peculiar island this is, and how many idiosyncrasies Jung invests in it. There's been a power failure plaguing it for months, though the vibrators still work. Private Willy is charged with restoring electricity, while he's gamely attempting wokeness (and good sex) with his wife, though Jung eventually unleashes a good deal of straight-white-cis-male invective (see below). Since the phones don't work, residents make do with empty paper cups and string. Restoration comedy tropes spring up: characters in cross-dressing disguises, elaborate deceptions with comical consequences, bawdy double entendres.

It's chaotic. And funny. Jung's main point, if there is one, is to celebrate sex and sexuality. But she also tackles the Big Issues, as here, where the angel has charged O'Nope with a divine mission:

O'NOPE: The heavenly angels have chosen a female psychiatrist to kill off half of humanity with an ax?
ANGEL: Actually, humanity in general is doing a damn good job wiping their own selves out, with weapons of mass destruction, climate change, general bad diet. But in the interest of death diversity, the angels have decided we need a more targeted effort to kill off cis-gendered male species of European descent, as they have spent centuries in building the structure that would nurture and protect their kind. So that's where we shall begin.

Nicole Villamil, Shaunette Renée Wilson and Ryan Spahn
Photo by Joan Marcus
So the last third of Merry Me is a death-stalker comedy, pausing to joke about everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Avengers movies to Shakespeare in the Park. Relax, half of humanity won't get destroyed, and the general silliness and randomness Jung has laid out will prevail. O'Nope provides a helpful epilogue, not only revealing a generally happy ending but declaring, "I stand before you today proud and merry to say I am single, available, hot as a motherfucker, and if you are an emotionally unavailable project of a person, please leave your number with the box office and I'll try to fit you in my calendar."

Leigh Silverman is such a versatile director, able to handle everything from epic history (Suffs) to conventional musical (Violet) to domestic comedy (Grand Horizons). Here she goes in for gaudy production values, with Alejo Vietti's elaborate costumes and Barbara Samuels' bright, colorful lighting, and lets the cast run wild. Wilson's angel probably garners the most laughs, but Anderson, playing one of the island's saner inhabitants, is pretty hilarious too, and Spahn, having to maintain straight-white-male dignity amid a sea of alternate identities and proclivities, manages to be both likable and funny. Jouléy possesses not only those massive biceps, but precise comic timing.

Jung has an original comic voice, and Merry Me is a raucous setting for it. Here and there you may roll your eyes at the arbitrariness of everything, or grimace as everyone around you laughs at a pop-culture reference you didn't get. All the same, stick with it. It'll give you the merries.

Merry Me
Through November 19, 2023
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: or call 212-460-5475.