The theatre world can be so rabidly insular that it borders on the cult-like. Depending on your level of initiation, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s pitch-perfect satire Theater Camp will either trigger mortifying flashbacks of vocal exercises and gender-reversed Shakespeare productions, or play like a psychoanalyst’s field study in hysteria. Its script arrives courtesy of a quartet of longtime friends and collaborators: The Bear actor Gordon, filmmaker Lieberman, Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt, plus Platt’s fiancé and fellow Dear Evan Hansen star Noah Galvin. It’s like we’ve been invited into their shared reminiscence.
Platt and Gordon play a pair of camp counsellors, Amos and Rebecca-Diane, at the “AdirondACTS” camp in the Adirondacks, in New York State (it’s true, theatre people love puns). Their very raison d’être as the shapers of future Broadway talent comes under threat when “AdirondACTS” founder and head, Joan (Amy Sedaris), falls into a coma following a strobe lighting incident at a high school production, in what’s termed “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County”.
Welcomed like rockstars to the camp’s cafeteria stage, Amos and Rebecca-Diane announce to the latest pool of scarily talented and disconcertingly Fosse-literate children that, on top of the usual productions of “Crucible Jr” and “immersive” Cats, they’ll be producing an original piece dedicated to their founder, titled “Joan, Still”. However, they stage their announcement using a series of musical riffs and rhyming couplets, delivered with the extraneous sincerity of a phony wedding toast – cringe-inducing to the point that it’s physically painful to watch.
There’s plenty more here to terrorise theatre kids, practising or reformed, and bemuse outsiders. Amos talks wearily of an old, “torrid affair”, back from when he was a camp attendee. They didn’t kiss. Or even touch. But it was the talk of the summer, supposedly. Clive DeWitt (Nathan Lee Graham), the dance teacher, recycles the same handful of stories from his glory days in the Eighties. He spends his lessons wrapped in a shawl, mindlessly poking at a slice of cake with a fork (a stereotype of seasoned instructors that’s incredibly niche but somehow accurate). The non-theatre kid audience gets its own surrogate in the form of Janet (Gordon’s The Bear co-star Ayo Edebiri), who lied on her application and so has to fake her way through mask work.
Edebiri’s signature, ever-candid delivery helps expose some of the narcissism on display, but Theater Camp has no shortage of actors lining up to poke fun at the self-indulgence of their own vocation. The counsellors here are so single-mindedly dedicated to the sacred act of artistic creation that they’re entirely oblivious to the fact their camp is facing imminent foreclosure – a problem ungraciously dumped into the lap of the new, temporary head, Troy (Jimmy Tatro). He’s Joan’s son and a crypto-fanatic vlogger who’s filled with as many useless acronyms (“BDE – business development expertise”) as he is himbo gentility.
But when Amos spurns Troy with a barbed, “You are not one of us”, there’s a surprising amount of bitterness in those words. A lot of these kids are queer, a lot of them clearly aren’t popular at school. And, yet, here, for two months out of the year, they’re allowed to go somewhere where the things that ostracised them are here treated as the norm (so much so that a kid hurls the insult “cis-het bitch!” at Troy).
And when the kids inevitably unite for a finale rendition of Rent’s “Season of Love”, Theater Camp momentarily sets aside its silliness to embrace the sense of peace that can be found in these protected, self-contained little worlds. “Camp isn’t home. But I think it kind of is” – those words, cheesy as they are, might even bring a tear to your eye.
Dir: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman. Starring: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris. 12A, 93 minutes.
‘Theater Camp’ is in cinemas from 25 August