‘A Strange Loop’ Review: One Man’s Mind Games Get Funny, Then Wrenching, in Superlative L.A. Take on the Bold Broadway Hit

At some point, if you are enthusiastically trying to get everyone you know in Los Angeles out to see “A Strange Loop” — and anyone who hasn’t should try to, as the production comes to a close this weekend — you may realize that some of the things you’re touting about the show may be taken by folks you’re evangelizing as reasons not to go. Like, if I tell you that it’s kind of like “Inside Out,” but with a hard R rating, does that read as a recommendation?

It should, but with all of the show’s conceits and wrinkles, it’s difficult to make “A Strange Loop” sounds as good on paper as it turns out to be in execution. I’ll admit that, before ever seeing it produced, I was thrown for a loop, no pun intended, upon looking at the cast list and realizing that Usher, the show’s protagonist, is the only fully human character in the entire 90 minutes, and every other actor in the musical dramedy is playing an idea or a memory in his head, with the rest of the ensemble identified as “Thought 1” through “Thought 6.”

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But this was a very good omen: these supporting players aren’t just representing archetypes — they feel real-life enough that theguy who plays Thought 4 was nominated for a Tony. (That would be John-Andrew Morrison, the only member of the L.A. cast who came west from the original 2022 Broadway production. More about him later.) Speaking of Tonys, “A Strange Loop” won a couple of the most prestigious ones, for best musical and best book, both for playwright-songwriter Michael Jackson, who’d earlier picked up a Pulitzer for his work. Sometimes just listing some well-deserved trophies probably does a better job of selling a show than any thumbnail description could.

But with time a-wasting as “A Strange Loop” Heads into the final weekend of its short L.A. run, here’s a shot at doing an elevated elevator pitch for it anyway. Leading man Malachi McCaskill has a lot to work with, to say the least, in playing Usher, an aspiring playwright who’s getting little indication that he should do anything but give up the ghost as he works to finish his magnum opus of a musical, to be titled… “A Strange Loop.” (Did we mention that the show is “Inside Out” meets “Tick, Tick… Boom!”? Among a lot of other ingredients that will be met.) To make ends meet, Usher is literally working as an an usher — who says naming isn’t destiny — at the Broadway house where “The Lion King” is playing. That leads to certain expectations that this story might be a deeply autobiographical one for its creator, since Jackson also is a Black, gay man who struggled with a self-image of fatness and handed out Playbills before he got to be in one.

Jackson has cautioned in interviews that there are plenty of other aspects of the bold, and boldly insecure, Usher that are pure fiction. Maybe the extreme religiosity and provinciality of his family back home is made up; it’s certainly exaggerated, in certain scenes, for satirical and then hyper-dramatic effect. (Usher also laments in his monologues more than once about the plight of being a gay Black man of limited endowment — something the writer will probably never be asked to confirm or deny in an interview.) But the wrenching doubt and growing passion with which Usher faces his demons — or his kin; it’s clear these can overlap — sure makes it feel as if we’re watching pure, unexpurgated memoir put onto the stage. The writing is alternately pithy and poignant, and certainly not afraid to turn on a dime, as Thoughts do. It’s a riveting brain to hang out in.

In the earliest and most predictable part of the show, the half-dozen Thoughts are a chorus line of nags operating from a hive mind of self-hostility. At one point, all six of them rotate in rapid-fire fashion in channeling Usher’s smotheringly intolerant mother. That’s a cool thing for seeing just how snappily a highly accomplished ensemble can work together, almost like a band. These are probably some of the most crowd-pleasing moments in the production, with the snarky musical-comedy operating at a high level. But as “A Strange Loop” goes on, there are a lot more one-on-one moments. It’s not always clear which incidents are fantasies in Usher’s mind, and which are real memories. There’s one terrific scene on a subway train in which Usher is delighted and surprised to be come onto by a fairly studly but sweet Black guy… who casually mentions at one point that he’s white… getting a big laugh, of course. When the suitor reminds Usher that he’s a pure figment of his imagination, though, there’s no chuckling about the deflating moment.

A later scene, surely talked about (and squirmed about) by many couples or groups after they see it, sees Usher — who considers himself severely undersexed — going against his instincts and going home with an older man who does not share his sensitive nature. What follows is graphically portrayed as something that skirts the border of sexual assault, although it probably falls under the umbrella of consent. What matters is that it further paints Usher as a man without a tribe — not in the world of casual, rough sex; not as someone whose light skin tone makes him feel less than completely accepted among Black acquaintances; and most certainly not among the church folk from back home who loom large in his imaginatin, even if they’re far from New York City.

The fact that he’s a Black man who’s perfectly open about his “Inner White Girl” doesn’t help, either. (At the Ahmanson, you can buy “Inner White Girl” coffee mugs at intermission; we should have studied who was the demographic for those.) Although Usher aspires to write about Black issues for the Great White Way, he’s a Tori Amos nut, at one point acknowledging that the title of the show comes from a Tori lyric. At another, he starts talking about Liz Phair, and how he toyed with making his show a song-by-song response to “Exile in Guyville,” just as her signature album was theoretically a response to the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” Then he says he tried to get Phair’s permission to use some of her music in his show-within-a-show, but she refused it. Is any of that true, IRL, or in meta life, or is Jackson putting us on? Maybe only Phair’s copyright executor knows for sure, but it’s a good excuse to bust out an “Exile in Gayville” joke — and to add to the score a fairly rocking number that makes it clear he isn’t just giving his love for that music lip service.

Jackson isn’t afraid to play around with sarcasm about some real-life pop culture figures, whether it’s Phair or — more crucially to the script — Tyler Perry. In a scene with a little bit of a parallel to the movie “American Fiction,” Usher’s agent urges him to sell out just a little by accepting an assignment for a Perry-produced project. The dialogue gives some weight to a counteragument to Usher’s idealism, that Perry actually represents a valid and valuable place in Black culture. But when “A Strange Loop” finally gets around to offering a full-on spoof of what might be seen as the Perry ethos, it’s a pretty deadly piece of satire — whether it’s really both Usher and Jackson getting their digs in or just the fictional hero.

Does this sound episodic? It’s crazy-episodic. But it’s also building, in ways that aren’t always apparent till you get there. The effective climax is one of the strangest and yet most strangely moving 11:00 numbers I’ve ever seen in a Broadway or post-Broadway show. It’s a full-on gospel number, as sort of an outgrowth of the Tyler Perry subplot, but starring members of Usher’s “real” family, The audience is encouraged by the preacher leading the music to clap along with the rousing song, and in any given audience at least a few will, before realizing they’ve been duped. Because the “hymn” is about AIDS being God’s punishment on the wicked — as emphasized by putting that actual message in neon lights — and a creepy, dischordant tone in the music starts turning it into a musical subgenre that might only be described as gospel-horror.

If this number had only that irony to recommend it, it might count as a little too obvious to add up to much more than a decent dark joke — a hypocritical eulogy for Usher’s late, AIDS-stricken uncle that presents intolerance as a jubilee. But the scene is actually fueled by powerful, even shattering emotions, thanks to the key presence in this sequence of Usher’s mother — as played by John-Andrew Morrison, aka Thought 4. It’s drag played for tragedy, not camp, as the mom first embraces Usher, seeming to understand his pain at last, as a shamed gay man… but then it turns on another dime, as it turns out she isn’t accepting him at all, but just all the more committed to saving him from damnation.

The music in this climactic sequence would be enough to focus on, but the performances, by Morrison as the concerned mama and McCaskill as her suddenly enraged son, make for a brilliantly played dance of sympathy, misunderstanding and rage. The slack-jawed look on Morrison’s face, as she struggles to “get” her son’s torment, is utterly heartbreaking… all the more so when it turns out she has actually failed the test it looked like she might finally master.

And the way McCaskill comes alive in this sequence is a wonder to behold. This is especially remarkable given that the Center Theater Group might be seen as having gone out on a limb in casting someone so green in such a meaty leading role. The program notes that Morrison is a junior at a school in North Carolina, and so they went with someone with an unassailable voice but somewhat limited experience outside of collegiate or regional theater. In some of the earlier parts of the show, McCaskill seems as youthful as he is, which isn’t a bad thing, if this is essentially a coming-of-age show. But when he finds his fighting spirit in that “church” scene, and suddenly becomes a holy warrior against the stock evangelical mindset on homosexuality, it’s clear he wasn’t cast just for his angelic vocal chops.

Everything that follows that masterful sequence — which isn’t a lot — is anticlimactic, but that’s OK. Attentive viewers will probably have guessed that “A Strange Loop” isn’t going to end with a bang, or a major epiphany, but in a recognition that life’s lessons have a circular quality. (It’s not the destination, it’s the loops we met along the way that matter.) You could wish that the show had a denouement as strong as what just went before. But if you locked into the catharsis of Usher’s final battle with the heavenly-minded homophobia that molded him, you might be too wiped out anyway to carp about the epilogue.

“A Strange Loop” isn’t designed to hit everybody the same way. But between the Black audience, the queer audience, and the possibly vaster audience of people who have struggled to reconcile spirituality with the prejuduced practice of faith, that’s a pretty sizable portion of the population. Throw in anyone who ever experienced self-loathing, and you’ve got most demographics covered. That helps explain the miracle of why a show this seemingly off-Broadway-ish has been so successful on Broadway, and how “A Strange Loop” can be playing a house as big as the Ahmanson. Don’t take for granted a show that manages to be this invigorating for big nightly audiences and still bold enough to live up to the adjective in its name.

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