They say that “those who can’t do, teach.” And for those aspiring thespians who can’t quite make it to Broadway, their next step on the career catwalk is to instruct those kids whose dreams of stardom might just come true. Theater Camp, a probing but deeply sweet mockumentary courtesy of co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, understands that friction between community-building and competition and leverages it into a charming ode to the possibilities of the stage.
Co-written by Gordon, Lieberman, Tony-winner Ben Platt, and Noah Galvin, Theater Camp charts a fateful summer at AdirondACTS, a summer camp in upstate New York where excitable stage moms send their creative kids to put on shows, hone their craft, and endure the tough-love instruction of the camp’s counselors.
Two of them serve as our windows into this world of glitter and cardboard props: childhood friends Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt), whose early thrusts at stardom fizzled out. So, they’ve retreated to the one small pond that will treat them like big fish, and they strut about the place as if they own it. Best friends in real life, Gordon and Platt play off each other beautifully, Rebecca-Diane’s airy, touchy-feely openness a balm to Platt’s fussy martinet.
Trouble is, they don’t; after some strobe lights during a production of Bye, Bye, Birdie send the camp’s real owner, Joan (a neat cameo by Amy Sedaris), into a coma, management falls to her finance-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a blinkered jock/”en-Troy-preneur” suddenly thrust into a world of prissy theater kids. Moreover, he’s tasked with keeping the camp afloat in the face of foreclosure and a potential sale to the rich-kid theater camp across the lake.
Wet Hot American Sondheim
In fact, there’s a lot of Wet Hot American Summer in Theater Camp, mixed with a healthy blend of Waiting for Guffman’s small-time theater hopefuls. DP Nathaniel Hurtsellers affects a 16mm film look that makes it look like a D.A. Pennebaker doc right out of the ‘70s, matching the modern-day camp’s out-of-time feel. AdirondACTS feels like a hermetically-sealed refuge from the stresses and realities of the outside world; their only concern is the next big show. (This year’s is an as-yet-unwritten original musical based on their comatose matriarch’s life called Joan, Still). The kids brag about their resumes and special skills (one kid’s intro makes the counselor read their IMDb StarMeter aloud), while the counselors offer tough-love digs at their costumes and line deliveries (“Your accent is still all over the place, but much better!”).
The jokes come fast and furious, but always within the realm of the world out of time the film has set up for itself. Backstage tech guru Glenn (Galvin) floats in the camp’s periphery, waiting for the right time for his on-stage talents to shine. New counselor Janet (Gordon’s The Bear co-star Ayo Edebiri) leaps headfirst into her teaching role, despite lying on her resume about having any theater experience (When slyly probing her students about the definition of stage combat: “Does anyone have an answer that’s not poetry?”).
Even plot-mandated characters like the headstrong corporate bully get much-needed spice courtesy of deadpan master Patti Harrison. The kids get their moments in the spotlight too, including one camper who aspires not to be talent, but a talent agent, complete with suspenders and type-A sales call voice.
Like most heavily-improvised comedies, Theater Camp doesn’t really coalesce into a cohesive whole. At a brisk 90 minutes, it moves fast — so fast, in fact, that subplots and characters feel vestigial apart from a few gags here and there. Edebiri and Galvin’s characters suffer the most: The former’s one-joke gag gets a rushed payoff, while Galvin’s big show-stopping resolution isn’t set up well enough to be fully earned.
Camp Isn’t Home, But Is It Kinda?
But amongst the gags about homespun community theater and children playing adult roles (“I’m worried her sexuality will get in the way of the role,” Rebecca-Diane says of a tween girl), Theater Camp is anchored by a PVC-pipe core of sincerity. Gordon, Lieberman et al. understand the absurdity and community of camps like these, wacky-wild places where the artistically inclined can feel safe to explore and feel powerful. Only here can a douchey but good-hearted guy like Troy be on the back foot, or Rebecca-Diane’s spacey instructions be treated like gospel.
When we finally get to the big show that Glenn hopes will raise enough money to save the camp, it feels intensely satisfying — mostly because Joan, Still just so happens to have some pitch-perfect parody numbers to show off. (The closing number is so Duncan Sheik it’ll make you cry.)
“We’re theater kids,” Glenn says to Troy at their moment of direst need. “We know how to turn cardboard into gold.” This feels as apt a metaphor as any for Theater Camp’s underdog vibes. For anyone who came up in the hazy, dream-filled environment of childhood theater and still looks back on it fondly, this is one camp where you’ll find your part.
Rating: 8/10 SPECS
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