A long-haired man stands on the stage. He is shirtless in gold boxer shorts, with his body curled around a microphone stand. He has a small gun wound on his chest—and a smear of what looks like queso.
As the audience filed into the Claire Tow Theater to see Austin-based theater collective Rude Mechs’ “Stop Hitting Yourself,” the actor, later revealed as the character Wildman, remained in this peculiar state. When Wildman rose, he explained that, after 90 minutes—a fortnight in the play’s timescale—he would die, falling to the floor exactly in the predicament the audience first saw him in, cheese and all.
What happens in between these two moments constitutes the play. A queen, both drag and royal, invites nobles to her palace, an all-gold spectacle of Gatsby-esque opulence, to compete in a charity ball. At the gathering, she does one good deed for less fortunate candidates that the rich guests train and sponsor. Wildman, raised in the forest, wants the Queen to protect nature, and the Unknown Prince wants to be granted the royal title that he claims his family lost. Trying to spread his message while he is simultaneously trained in the self-involved and superficial mannerisms of the über-wealthy, Wildman struggles between achieving his selfless aims and giving in to the temptations inherent in the highly selfish lifestyles of the elites and wannabe elites. Ideally, these tensions would generate a comic commentary on superficiality and provoke deeper introspection about materialism and human nature, or so the play would seem to suggest.
“Stop Hitting Yourself” falls flat, however, because it does not fully commit to being an over-the-top humorous take on wealth or a tragedy of Wildman’s failed good intentions. The stage and script talk the talk, from a massive, nude, golden statue to drawling conversations about money, but the heart of the show’s execution is weaker. The actors’ hyperawareness of the show’s social parody actually works against them, imbuing many scenes with an aura of self-boredom. To comment on excess, one must embody it excessively, and the energy level did not always match the demands of the show’s premise. Sarcastic criticism came across as dull and forced rather than as funny and biting. The most notable exception to this dullness is the tap-dancing, which, in its sonic animation of the room, livened up the performance. The show’s quirkier and more playful moments are its most successful.
Those moments—which include improvised, periodic breaches of the fourth wall in which the actors offer a dollar to see a dapper attendee’s belly-button or the Queen uses a rotary phone to call an audience member—mostly come when Rude Mechs draws on its identity as an ensemble theater collective. When the play retreats from audience interaction, however, it loses some of its vivacity. To comment on the intoxicating allure of materialism and the insularity of a “1 percent,” one must portray it with an energy that “Stop Hitting Yourself” does not always reach.
The play’s deadly, queso-smearing conclusion reveals the nature of Wildman’s death but leaves many other questions unanswered. “Stop Hitting Yourself” is a bit consumed with its narrative thread of queso, and there is even a recipe for chile con queso in the program. One of the play’s funnier exchanges, between a socialite and her magnate husband, sums up the experience of seeing the play quite nicely: “Why don’t you love me?” “I’m just getting some cheese.” Unless this play’s energy hits its stride, one might be better off, like the magnate, skipping straight to the cheese.
“Stop Hitting Yourself” runs at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater at 150 W. 65 Street through Feb. 23. Students can purchase $30 rush tickets at the box office two hours before each performance.