Over Magner’s cider and bong hits, writer Peter Michael Marino came up with one of those ideas that seemed perfect in the moment: a musical comedy based on the hit Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan, with a jukebox score from Debbie Harry’s back catalogue. Unlike most concepts formed under the influence, Marino’s dream didn’t go up in smoke. Instead, it came to fruition, with all the big names on board and a 2007 London tryout pre-Broadway. It seemed too good to be true…and, of course, it was.
To raise funds for the NYC Frigid Festival, Marino performs his hour-long solo show about his brush with theatrical disaster, Desperately Seeking the Exit, its title taken from one of the less-than-charitable reviews of the musical. He chronicles his project’s quick, meteoric rise and long, drawn-out death rattle of a rehearsal process. His excited Anglophilia and desire to own his own house with the riches that were sure to follow the musical's premiere became tempered by the sobering realization that each creative person seemed to have a different conception of what the show should be.
Marino speaks conversationally and animatedly, gesticulating with a can of Magner’s to punctuate his tirade. Mistakes happen, but as he says, this is live, and it just adds to the charm. He lets the audience watch unmuted if they desire to encourage real-time laughter and feedback, and with a limited audience, this didn’t lead to any disruption.
Some of the observations run toward the obvious – that the British like to drink tea, for example – but there are other moments of hilarity, including how many things New Yorkers take for granted that don’t translate between cultural contexts.
The show is at its best when it’s examining the heartbreak of seeing your creation twisted until you don’t recognize it anymore, and then being blamed for a result you never envisioned. It’s something akin to a parent no longer understanding their own child – who is currently being tried publicly as an adult.
It’s a powerful example of the importance of a unified vision, communication, and (dare I say) dramaturgy in this most collaborative of arts. The commentary runs like a dramaturg’s handbook, and one wonders where the dramaturg was in the room. Instead, as the set of creatives furthered their own individual artistic development, they seemed to forget the project itself, leaving the staging stagnant and draining the whimsy that was its main purpose. It’s a classic story of pride coming before a fall, implying that sometimes it’s okay to let a fun show just be fun, without looking for a greater importance.
The backstory also reminds potential reviewers and theatre patrons that a writer may not have complete control over what is presented in the end. However, the desire to blame doesn't only come from the audience, and it’s evident here in the text; as Marino airs grievances with the rest of the members of the creative team, I did find myself wondering what the choreographer or director’s take on the events and result might have been.
Mostly, though, the take-away message is that everyone involved in a show is a human being with feelings, and that there’s a difference between constructive criticism and a gleeful takedown for page-views. On this human scale, Marino feels overly responsible for those who his show employed but also rapidly unemployed, showing the economic and personal impact of the gamble of show business. As we witness the current fallout from COVID-19's shutdown of all physical theatres, this observation gains a new, upsetting relevance.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. As recounted, the experience was clearly a learning experience of some value, and a twist later on lends the hour some positivity. While the memories are still painful, the wounds from the experience are less fresh, and are delivered more as comic cautionary tale than angst-ridden confessional. It’s certainly a diverting and breezy way to fill an hour; just remember to bring a bucket to catch all the dropped names.
If a show about failure can be a success, this is it.
Desperately Seeking the Exit will be performed May 31st and June 8th at 7:00PM, and June 4th at 9:00PM, as part of an online Cincy Fringe event.
Tickets are $10-15 with a $1 fee, and can be purchased online.
The show includes mature language and content. Marino also performs an online children’s show; details here.
Photo courtesy of PeterMMarino.com