Comedy is a neglected art-form these days; those of us who remember what it was like to be in a packed auditorium rocking with laughter on a Saturday night will find that viewing a tweet of someone falling in mud with the words “Ha Ha’ captioned over their indignity doesn’t quite hit the same spot. Generating cruel laughs is the quickest of fixes for social media online; creating a funny feature length movie for the ages is a far trickier business, so kudos to directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who expanded their own short film into Theater Camp, a well-observed look at the vanity and hubris of teachers attempting to put on a show at an upstate New York residential summer-school; it’s like Fame, or Glee, but much funnier.
‘It’s either this or do a straight play.’ ‘So, if there’s straight plays, what’s a gay play, then?’ ‘…a musical?’ is one of the opening snippets of dialogue here that set exactly the right WASPish tone. Fresh from hitting the heights in this summer’s big hit The Bear, Molly Gordon plays Rebecca-Diane (surely a Cheers reference), a staff-member who harboured an unrequited childhood crush on Amos (Ben Platt), who turned out to be gay, much to her chagrin. Nevertheless, Amos and Rebecca-Diane have been organising the annual camp show in the remote Adirondacks for decades. When co-founder and director Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma during an intense performance of Bye Bye Birdie, her nepo-son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) steps into the gap with mixed results. Wth the highly monetised rivals at Camp Lakeside ready to step in to take advantage of a potential foreclosure, could fake-it-till-you-make it instructor Janet Walsh (Ayo Edeberi, also from The Bear) make the difference between a hit show and a closed camp?
Richard Nixon said that student politics were vicious because the stakes are so small; he might as well have been talking about out-of-town amateur musical theatre, because Theater Camp does a great job of lampooning the ridiculous self-importance of Amos and Rebecca-Diane, while still managing to pull off an upbeat, feel-good ending that you’d expect from a ‘let’s put on a show’ story. Theater Camp should work for Gilmore Girls fans, and Mrs Maisel devotees, and also for those who relished Christopher Guest’s classic Waiting for Guffman, but would like to see it updated to 2023. ‘The Go-Pro loves you’ and ‘We’re supposed to be manifesting’ are the kind of witty lines that provide a modern slant on traditional backstage rivalries; references to a prospective course on ‘Chekhov for Children of Divorce’ or a cruise ship’s ‘Cole Porter on the Waves’ show dismissed as ‘non-narrative’ catch an acerbic feel.
With Will Ferrell amongst the producers, the slight, nuanced laughs of Theater Camp may have a limited appeal at the cinema, but this should easily pick up a cult following on streaming; it’s played in a pitch perfect style by an ensemble cast, and there’s some choice musical drops including Paul Simon’s The Obvious Child, plus an amusing bit from Alan Kim from Minari as a precocious agent (he’s eleven). ‘I’m not angry…I’m furious!’ is the kind of rant you can expect at this camp show goes south; self-selecting viewers are likely to be more than satisfied by this agreeably lightweight, personal account of the trials and tribulations of an over-ambitious creative endeavour.