There are two huge, delightful surprises in Dan Fishback’s new play “The Material World,” playing Fridays and Saturdays all July at Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival for queer performance. One is that the play, which has an anachronistic set-up at the heart of its absurdist drama treats those anachronisms (Madonna, Britney Spears, a cyber-activist all are renters in the house of a family who left Russia during the pogroms) exquisitely. More on that later.
The second huge surprise comes in the second act. There is a song that, had it been known this show would head to other places and the roles would be given to other actors, would probably have never been included. It is a song that is so absurd in its set-up that if it failed, no one would remember it when they left. Tears would not have welled up in audience members’ eyes, like they did when “I’m Fucking Great” was sung by Molly Pope (a cabaret singer who sings pop songs at “Our Hit Parade” at Joe’s Pub).
In “The Material World,” Pope is the matriarch of a family of Russian émigrés who end up in New York and rent out rooms in their building to lodgers.
In one of the house’s rooms, Madonna and Britney Spears study Kabbalah, and in the other room, a young man tries to foment a revolution on Facebook. In the family’s home, three young women think quite differently of their time in America. One of these young women, Gittel Fenster (Megan Stern), is studying her Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and wants to start a revolution the old-fashioned way.
With Madonna and Britney Spears, Gittel learns how being charismatic can help one reach enlightenment — and fights against the vacuous materialism that has made both Madonna and Britney Spears popular. And with the cyber-activist (Cole Escola), Gittel confronts her own idealism.
Gittel’s parents — who fight over how revolutionary they both were during their life in Russia — also inform the young girl’s burgeoning socialism.
There is a third exceptional element of this musical: the Yiddish stage actress Eleanor Reissa plays Gittel as an adult. Reissa as Gittel owns the play’s second act, in which she tells Jewish jokes and is able to create a future for Gittel’s revolutionary impulse that avoids nostalgia for a time that never became. Fishback is not sentimental about the strands of activist fervor that inspired Fishback in “The Material World.”
Fishback’s songs and book are superb. The actors in this production are all playing to their strengths. And with any justice, this stellar cast will return to more sold-out performances at the HOT! Festival and, perhaps, in a longer run off-Broadway sometime in the near future.