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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Review: A.R.T.’s ‘Circle Jerk’ is a Millennial Passion Play (Sort Of)

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Circle Jerk is a romantic comedy that tries to be too many things at once: a social satire, a romantic comedy, a coddled Millennial play, a caper, a serious look at racism in America.

Tied up in a technological twist, it is also in love with its protagonist’s personal narrative. Nico (Lane Christian) is not merely a tech-savvy, failing (and bank-robbing) “Job Killer,” but also has a grown-up affair — which includes a year-long kid — with his own father.

The show is set in a Silicon Valley apartment that is closely approximated by the city where it was put on view: the Longacre Theater, part of the Lincoln Center complex at Columbus Circle.

An opening group hug of sorts sets the show on its best possible course, with the ethically awkward Nico clumsily chugging wine with his friends and ex-boyfriends, and getting it on with some of his costars. Alex Helbrans (Joe Tracz) and Billy Crudup (Malcolm Crudup) are new pals who fuel jokes about Silicon Valley, Justin Timberlake and YouTube, among other things.

The guys are all having a series of crises, from falling asleep at their jobs to being repeatedly busted for civil disobedience by social workers. Some of their exploits are way too schematic — something about a rich guy who doesn’t pay taxes and has a housekeeper who appears to have developed a taste for orange juice. (This is supposed to be absurd, but it’s just not believable.)

See more photos on Broadway.

To be fair, the play is not entirely devoid of invention. Making way for stage interludes from different characters (including a bossy ex-girlfriend who is listed as an understudy and goes so far as to suggest a different character), director Alex Timbers has a lot of ideas at his disposal.

Though lots of them are deeply stupid, he juxtaposes the verbal exchanges with flash effects, from holograms and strobe lights to bejeweled curtain drops.

At times, this makes the show even more over-the-top than it already is. It creates a sense of unhinged freneticism that prevents Circle Jerk from connecting with its characters.

Speaking of incoherent, the production has been otherwise inconsistent. It opened with a prolonged collapse and burnout, which serves only to reveal a stagehand downing a cigarette on live TV.

But a closing monologue from Soledad Pastor that felt the most honest was also the most annoying. (It comes at the end of a double-bill set to “Stay” and “Don’t Talk To Irene.”) It felt like Timbers was after a too-brief sob story that should not be the centerpiece of a play about millennials.

Like many other works, it’s probably worth all the hours lost to Circle Jerk: it should be understood as an antidote to the often-satirized uber-hype that surrounds immersive, immersive shows like A.R.T.’s other big attraction this season, “Moby Dick.” Both are great escapes that leave you laughing and wondering.

“Circle Jerk,” Longacre Theatre, 219 W. 44th St. Tickets: $59-$154, on sale Monday. Call 212-239-6200.

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