Review: ‘Happy Birthday Doug.’ Here’s a Vodka Stinger.

Review: ‘Happy Birthday Doug.’ Here’s a Vodka Stinger.

Drew Droege’s new solo show — “Happy Birthday Doug,” at SoHo Playhouse — is packed with killer lines. Last Friday, people in the audience laughed pretty much nonstop. Yet it’s not all that funny on the page. What elevates the text is Droege’s supercharged performance as he brings to life a handful of the gay men attending Doug’s 41st birthday party at a Los Angeles wine bar. A simple “hello” becomes an elongated growl filled with sarcasm and a pinch of contempt. “Bitch” is a simultaneous attack and exclamation point. It can be glorious.

“Happy Birthday Doug” is a natural follow-up to Droege’s breakout Off Broadway hit, “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” from 2016. Both plays are acid-etched satires of a certain type of middle- or upper-middle-class white gay man, often working or aiming to work in something creative, as he descends into whirlwinds of booze- and drug-fueled introspection and recrimination during a social event (a Palm Springs gay wedding in the earlier show).

Droege’s favorite prop is a glass, from which the various characters of “Happy Birthday Doug” sip in between torrents of words: We’re eavesdropping not so much on conversations as narcissistic monologues. One of his funniest creations here is Jason, an actor who claims to be both retired and sober, and pats himself on the back for pseudo-provocative declarations like: “Instagram is so fake — hot take — sorry not sorry — I’ll say it — I’ll go there — Insta is fake, Mama.” Brian, a waiter-screenwriter-D.J., is so woke that he doesn’t play hip-hop “because it’s appropriation.”

As the evening progresses — or rather, deteriorates — we start getting the guests’ perspectives on one another. Jackson calls Jason “the Beaujolais Bandit”; Doug himself refers to Jackson and his husband, Harrison, as “Valley trolls.” Droege and the director, Tom DeTrinis, keep the show moving so fast, you almost feel as though the production itself were on something illicit.

Yet “Happy Birthday Doug,” unlike its predecessor, fails to move beyond the vignettelike social sendup. “Bright Colors” doubled as a sly commentary on the virtues and drawbacks of assimilation, puzzling over what it means to be a gay man in a world where homosexuality is no longer an obstacle to marriage, parenthood, social status.

“Happy Birthday Doug” does introduce two characters who act as bridges between a seemingly rosy present and an outlaw past: Oscar Wilde (“I’m a ghost, bitch”) and Christopher, who is old enough to have lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis.

Christopher regales the crowd with stories of wild parties with Linda Blair, Natalie Wood and Roddy McDowall. “Honey, who knows if I was there and who cares if it was true,” he says. But he also marvels at the younger men’s hedonistic antics and their apparent freedom.

As for Oscar, he is ambivalent about what he sees. “Everyone here looks the same,” he sniffs. “No, I used to find it tedious, but now I find it rather comforting.”

Droege is onto something with these two interlopers, but Christopher and Oscar retreat quickly, and in the end it’s unclear what they are meant to say. That the dangerous days of yore were fun, but the “normal” present is at least somewhat safer? Droege’s previous show made pretty much the same point, and in a much sharper way.

At least we are left with a series of comic diatribes, each of which could stand on its own as a stinging monologue. You might not want to spend a second with these men in real life, but an hour in their theatrical company is more than fine.

Happy Birthday Doug
Through March 1 at SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; 212-691-1555, Running time: 1 hour.

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