Dad’s Garage is a comedy theater that does a mix of scripted and improvised shows. I caught a preview performance of a new, scripted show called Ad Nauseum, written and directed by Megan Leahy.
I almost didn’t go to this show because the premise sounded a bit tired and reductive: It takes place in a Mad Men style ad firm, but in an alternate universe where the women are in charge, and handle their power just as badly as men do in the real world. I’m so glad I went, because it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable show.
First off, the joke was played for its absurdity. It didn’t have any anger in it at all. The women clearly enjoyed playing these over-privileged, big energy people, and the men (who were all secretaries in very short shorts and strippers at a club) were fully participating in the joke. All of the actors seemed very comfortable with their bodies and with each other.
The story was amusing, but also hardly mattered. It’s basically about a rivalry between two women who work at the ad agency and how they try to take each other down. The stakes don’t feel super high, and nobody is as invested in the story as in the jokes. The end felt completely random and tacked on, and I think it’s because the story was so loose that it didn’t have a sensible conclusion as a possibility. And yet–that completely didn’t matter. The fact that I, narrative’s biggest fan, enjoyed a show with an underdeveloped plot, says a lot about the quality of the jokes and the performances.
Most of the humor came from re-gendering things that we see and hear every day. The plot, such as it is, involves an ad campaign to market cigarettes to single men. In one speech, one of the women says, “Of course we understand and care about men. They’re our husbands and sons. Our brothers and fathers. Our nephews and uncles.” Although of course I get irritated when men talk about women as if they only matter or exist because of their relationships to men, something about hearing a woman say those words made their absurdity pop for me in a way they hadn’t before. In another part, they talk about men’s chests being indecent (“The only people who should be topless in public are breastfeeding mothers!”) and later in the play, when we see male strippers, they are wearing sequined pasties. Again, the randomness of what parts of whose body can be shown was reduced to absurdism. They also had one-liners that hit specific, tiny, insidious bits of sexism that go unmentioned in many discussions of the bigger, overarching issues. In one scene, the male secretaries are all complaining about how hot the office is–because, since the women are in charge, they keep the thermostat at a temperature that is comfortable for them.
Between the scenes, they projected 60s-style ads onto the set and gave little pitches or jingles for the products–but all the product names and orientations were regendered. They talked about “Swansdaughter Frozen Dinners” for the woman who doesn’t have a man at home to cook for her, “Daddy’s Little Helper” pills from “Janedaughter & Janedaughter,” etc. These were super hilarious, especially toward the end of the play when the (female) voiceover actor who delivered some of the ad copy started hitting on one of the male actors who was just there to Vanna White the product.
The scenes that focused on objectifying men in the same way real-world society objectifies women were among the strongest parts, in terms of incisive humor. The ways in which the men were objectified were specific to male-ness, rather than being a parody of female objectification. I loved the hilarious dance number to “The Twist,” that was all about opening a jar of pickles in a sexy fashion.
My favorite thing about the casting was seeing a group of women who were all a bit older than I am, having fun and being in power. I can’t remember the last time I saw a play that had no women under 40 in it, and zero comments on women’s bodies. These women strutted around confidently, owning the space, grabbing handfuls of male ass, and being completely unabashed in their presentation. Seeing a world oriented around powerful women was delightful and surprising.
The show is a hoot, and is running through June.