Lopez and Marx’s Avenue Q is a crass coming of age story, equal parts Sesame Street, West Side Story, and Rent. The play has just finished a run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. I wouldn’t be the first to defend the choice of venue and wax depraved on the Bard’s penchant for sexual and scatological subjects. I recently saw a DC production of Shakespeare’s 12th Night, and in both cases, I was struck by how easy it was to get away with a fart joke and a mulit-layered dramaturgical critique of socio-aesthetics in a single breath. Like Shakespeare, Avenue Q has something for penny-seat groundlings and private box elites alike.
Q’s central character is a puppet named Princeton. Princeton has an expensive, freshly hung undergraduate degree – and no job. He moves into a rundown building in a recently gentrified neighborhood. His neighbors are a fictionalized ethnic and socio-political smirk of modern America: an interracial human couple, a pedophiliac monster, a closeted Ernie and supportive Bert, a young puppet girl (Princeton’s romantic interest) who refers to herself as “a person of fur,” and a posthumous Gary Coleman-as-landlord. The apartments light up to (Rear) window-framed song-and-dance social commentates with titles like, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist Sometimes,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and ‘You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).”
While the play is unmistakably New York, its mix of social commentary, show tunes, and fart jokes, are very well suited to the Capitol’s swarm of cultural adolescents. DC’s plucky and upwardly mobile 20-somethings often prefer blog-style criticism of art to the art itself. For the District’s new wave of well-off groundlings, Avenue Q is the perfect cultural fare. It’s ticket-stub-proof of cultural participation, and a dirty joke compliment to a dirty martini that everyone is in on.
Washington DC is no stranger to morally depraved puppets, but I for one am mostly a stranger to the theater. I saw Cats on Broadway when I was five. Rather, I attended Cats. As my mother has reminded me many times since, the tickets cost $64 and I was asleep before the curtain opened and awoke, only briefly, during the intermission.
I only recently moved to this city with its wobbly-but-walking arts scene. The inchoateness of the scene has allowed me to take some chances and get up close to the theater in a way I might not have been able to in, say, New York. This opportunity for closeness and a recent friendship with a big wig at the National Endowment for the Arts has landed me in theater seats no fewer than a dozen times in the last five months.
I’ve managed to stay awake for the whole show, almost every time, in part because of the theater’s uncanny ability to negotiate the timeless and the topical. Princeton might have been renamed George Town for the DC crowd and jokes in Q have been updated to cater to the schadenfreudian slips of the times. Jokes formerly made about George Bush are now aimed at Glenn Beck, but could have just as easily been about McCarthy.
The seeming newness of such an old form sits well with me. I find it somehow therapeutic, often feeling pangs of nostalgia that I don’t have the yellowed ticket stubs or telescopically rolled programs to justify. It’s that feeling that I like best about the theater. Painful truths, biting social commentaries, and uncomfortable looks back at oneself, when dressed with period costume and histrionic hand gestures, become Rockwellian revisionist versions of themselves – true, but more welcome without footnotes.
Americans tend to toggle paradoxically between laments of the past’s behindness and the future’s too-slow limp forward. The theater’s feeling of authenticity makes sense in a society unsure of which is the real way forward. We see it everywhere: The desire to sit front row; the imagined authenticity of Mad Men or watching Bill O’Reilly “do it live” on youtube; catching Ashlee Simpson lip-syncing or catching a foul ball. The fallible tangibly of “being there” seems more special now than ever. At the theater, the experience of authenticity, or that which I perceive as authentic, passes quite nicely for genuine nostalgia or even a genuine memory. (The Saturday Evening Post was delivered on Thursday afternoons, after all).
I’m still an amateur at the theater, but I feel like I’m getting a grasp on why it’s worth paying upwards (with inflation) of sixty-four dollars to attend – because what’s playing at the theater is what we want, with just enough of what we feel we should want.