Perhaps there should be an inspired-by-Macbeth checklist, or a caution list. Or something that says: approach this text with a creative wariness. If only Scotland, PA—a Roundabout production which opens tonight at the Laura Pels Theatre (to December 8)—had done this. Alas, it feels “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Macbeth can be done well or terribly if you are performing the original text. Here it has inspired a new musical (based on the 2001 movie, directed by Billy Morrissette).
If you’re going to go for it, the first hurdle is to decide on your tone and approach. If you’re going tragic, go fully tragic. If you’re going comic, go comic. If you’re going to mix tragedy and comedy, treat it as the most important cocktail you will ever mix in your life and get those liquor combinations right. Or: bleurgh.
Scotland, PA, set in the fall of 1975, starts as what seems to be a simple stoner comedy, with its That ‘70s Show set of a crappy Pennsylvania diner owned by Duncan (Jeb Brown). His son Malcolm (Will Meyers) is the archetypal kid who can’t stand his dad, but after some backchat about how dead-endy things are in the joint and town, suddenly the musical takes a left turn, with father hitting son and son revealing father used to hit dead mother. Whoa, OK.
This sets the weird tonal shifts of the whole musical. One second we’re just lolling around having some zoned-out fun, man, and the next it’s murder most foul. From plot lines to character names, the Shakespeare play parallels mount up: Mac/Macbeth; Duncan/King Duncan; Banko/Banquo; Malcolm/Malcolm; Peg McDuff/Macduff; Hector/Hecate; Mrs. Lenox/Lennox.
The three witches here (Alysha Umphress, Wonu Ogunfowora, and Kaleb Wells) are in hippy garb, and waft around speaking gloomy words about destiny and death, but also with big smiles on their faces.
Mac (Ryan McCartan) and wife Pat (Taylor Iman Jones) work at the diner, and are good souls. They have worked there for a long time, and she is feeling stuck and he doesn’t seem to care. Quite some time, and more than one musical number, is devoted to emphasizing this. I think we are supposed to be wary of her desire to get out of this tree-dominated backwater, but I found myself nodding away at everything she had to say.
But the musical pins everything on Mac, who seems, frankly, to be a wet ball of wool. She can do so much better than him, although the musical makes her subservient to his own life. She is his cheerleader. He is the one who needs to get the ambition and drive to get them out of here, whereas—in front of us—she clearly has all this drive herself. Why make her so dependent on his success?
They figure they should rob the diner, reasoning they are owed what they will steal because of being so poorly paid all this time. But Duncan is at the diner, and perilously close—after discovering Mac and Pat’s attempted robbery—to the new deep fat fryer. And so the blood-spattered, murderous side of Scotland, PA, begins—and the tonal shifts and plot oddness spin out of all control.
The musical is serious about Mac and Pat, then goes zany, and treats other characters like their buddy Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson, who at least keeps his fug of dopiness a constant), who just wants to have sex with a woman, the same way.
The diner, now the property of Mac, receives a makeover, by the way, to what looks like a McDonald’s, but is in fact a McBeth’s. Of course. But the golden M is there, sharper-looking than the classic logo but still... and the yellow and red are in familiar interplay. And so perhaps the ultimate horror and moral corrosion the play is suggesting lies in fast food. Or maybe not: the fries are delicious (they’re on sale at intermission).
But Mac doesn’t seem as tortured or terrifying as Macbeth should. He didn’t want this power, but now that he has it he becomes a power-mad lunatic. So, he goes from someone with good ideas and kindness to a madman, but why? Pat is meant to be Lady Macbeth; again, why? Because she has the temerity to suggest they have a better life? This reasonable life quandary becomes a motivation for serial murder because (I guess) McBeth’s suddenly becomes, in Mac and Pat’s intentions, a global franchise. Again, light comedy hits dark drama—and again, we don't quite see how Mac and Pat got here.
The musical’s emulations of Macbeth, beyond the naming of characters, don’t map or make sense; not least because the original Macbeth is a tragedy, rather than a stoner comedy with tragic pretensions. Megan Lawrence as Peg McDuff is a vegetarian busybody detective out to expose Mac and Pat’s crimes, bringing an element of amiable comedy, which again is in stark contrast to the musical’s suddenly serious bearing. “Something wicked this way comes”? Maybe. But is it meant to scare or humor us?
The music is well-played and well-sung—and the musical also includes a genuinely surprising and well-meant coming out song—but the score does not thrill or freak out as much as its characters do. Is there a tragedy unfolding before us? Yes, but it isn’t Mac’s, or even Macbeth’s. Instead, we are left with “a sorry sight” indeed.