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A STRANGE LOOP, from p.40

the material is drawn from personal experience. The sharp, witty musical number, “Exile in Gayville,” recounts Usher’s attempts to find sex via hookup apps like Scruff and Grindr. “Looking? Into? Hung?” is the refrain. Sadly, he is cruelly rebuffed. “Too fat. Too black. Yr dick 2 small,” the white guys yell in unison. As Usher, Larry Owens perfectly captures the ambivalence of a marginalized black playwright in a predominantly white man’s game. Sure, Usher can be a smart aleck, but Owens lends a vulnerability that keeps us rooting for the dramatist, even as his life and the musical itself whirl out of control. The play’s title is not easy to pin down. On one level of course, “A Strange Loop” refers to this circular musical about a musical. Yet it also refers to the cognitive phenomenon of self-perception where, despite appearing to moving forward, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. Usher navigates multiple strange loops in trying to make his dream a re-


Larry Owens in “A Strange Loop.”

ality and claim his identity. These loops involve prejudice against African Americans, gay men, and even overweight people. Setbacks abound. “Strange Loop” is also the title of a song by Liz Phair, one of Usher’s favorite singers. When he channels his “inner white girl” to write musical numbers, he’s drawing strength from her. If Jackson’s goal is to employ his

ferocious voice to shake up complacent theatergoers accustomed to a steady diet of musicals based on popular movies like “Tootsie,” “Mean Girls,” and “The Lion King,” he has succeeded all too well. For me, about two-thirds in, he crosses the line from provocative to punishing. The relentless barbed dialogue about gay sex (“bareback and felching,” “filthy little sissy”) and race (“nigguh,” “dumb mon-

key”) becomes overwhelming. A meth-fueled hookup with master/ slave overtones appears to border on rape. During a spirited gospel number, Usher in pastor mode beckons the audience to clap along to the chant “AIDS is God’s punishment.” Some people did, but I refused to play along. When Usher sang, “Where are my boundaries?” I began to wonder the same about Jackson. Early on in “A Strange Loop,” the thoughts declare, “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write. They’ll say it’s way too repetitious. And so overly ambitious.” I do care about the struggling writer onstage. Very much. But by the end of this astonishing yet challenging endeavor, I found myself in agreement: too repetitious and overly ambitious. A STRANGE LOOP | Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Jul. 7: Tue.Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $49-$89 at | One hr., 45 mins., with no intermission

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