One thing I’ve learned from writing about theater for the past several years: Broadway audiences will laugh at anything.
I can’t count the number of comedies that have left me straight-faced while the audience around me is erupting in merriment. Even in more serious plays, a stray wisecrack that would scarcely arouse a titter from a TV sitcom audience is routinely greeted with an outburst of laughter. Is it the audience’s eagerness to prove they’re enjoying themselves (and justify those $250 theater tickets)? Or simply the adrenalin rush they get from witnessing a live performance and being able to show their appreciation in person to the hard-working cast? Whatever, they’re suckers for a joke.
Sometimes the laughter is at least understandable. The barrage of cornball jokes and puns that keeps the audience roaring in the new musical Shucked drove me a little batty. (When a character says he just passed a squirrel, you can bet he’ll next confess he doesn’t even remember eating one.) But some of them are clever, and the sheer thoroughness with which the show has mined the Hee Haw jokebook is some sort of achievement.
Similarly, the nonstop sight gags in Peter Pan Goes Wrong — a follow-up to the hit Broadway farce The Play That Goes Wrong — chronicling an amateur theater group’s inept, mishap-strewn production of Peter Pan, grow tiresome pretty fast. But the sheer technical virtuosity of the knockabout staging is in its own way impressive.
Which brings me to Fat Ham, the critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning play by James Ijames that has just arrived on Broadway after a run at the Public Theater. It’s a modern riff on Hamlet, centering on a young Black gay man named Juicy, still living at home while trying to earn an online college degree. Like the moody Dane, he is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, urging him to take revenge against the uncle who murdered him — and who is about to marry his brother’s widow, Juicy’s mother.
Once past the set-up, however, and despite a couple of speeches from the play inserted pretty much at random, the Hamlet parallel is barely developed. Instead of existential musings or tragic plot twists (or any plot at all, really), we get a celebratory family barbecue filled with jokey set pieces: a karaoke session; a game of charades; a character’s dreamy, out-of-the-blue monologue about having sex with a gingerbread man; lots of cutesy, fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience; and a pasted-on disco-dance finale, complete with confetti showering the audience.
In short, Fat Ham is a shambles: disjointed, pretentious, and shamelessly eager to please. Nor is it helped by the consistently broad, in-your-face performances — all except for Marcel Spears’ oddly subdued and remote Juicy.
Why the rave reviews? For all its showy trappings and Shakespearean pretentions, the play’s real subject is the by-now-familiar (and critically bulletproof) one of queer identity and Black masculinity. Indeed, Fat Ham is the third play to win the Pulitzer Prize in the past three years that focuses on gay characters of color.
By pointing this out, I realize that I’m venturing into dangerous PC waters. But can’t we approve of the message and still object to the contrivances and virtue-signaling with which it’s delivered? In one especially grating sequence, Juicy’s macho childhood friend returns home in a Marine uniform (“You kill people, right?” his friend asks), outs himself in a private conversation with Juicy, only to have his friend blurt it out to everyone at the party a few minutes later.
Alas, it’s one of the few scenes that isn’t played for comedy. But when this sort of thing passes for good playwriting, I’m afraid the laugh’s on us.
4 thoughts on “Why ‘Fat Ham’ Fails”
ooooh, spoilers, Richard! But a nice review nonetheless. Especially your comment about critically bulletproof subjects.
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Fascinating and incisive. Mediocre plays come and go, but the decline of thoughtful criticism seems inexorable. Hopefully you open a wider discussion
div>We just saw it. Your review was really spot-on. F