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I used to think that the more bizarre, the more barking, the more gleefully uninhibited the show, the more I was bound to love it. Minor technical hitches, intermittently audible sound effects – all these tend to bias me toward rather than against a show, as long as the energy was there. But in Dave Malloy and Eliza Bent’s Blue Wizard/Black Wizard, a vaguely absurd electro-pop musical about disaffected wizards and their struggle against the Great Mediocrity, I may have hit my limit. As the titular Blue and Black Wizards, respectively, Bent and Malloy are energetic and engaging performers: it’s easy to root for them in their great Wizard Duel against one another, and in the smaller battles they pitch against themselves.
Unfortunately, the narrative of Black Wizard/Blue Wizard is so over-the-top nonsensical that it borders on the self-indulgent. We open with some glam rock outfitted “referees” (Nikki Calonge and Mikéah Ernest Jennings, keeping the energy alive) who inform us, video-game style, that we’re about to witness a necessary ritual, a duel between two alien wizards (at once foes, lovers, and friends) that will result in a champion being chosen to battle against the Great Mediocrity.
Yet what we actually witness is a wilful lowering of the stakes that starts out funny (Black Wizard is running late; he’s stuck on the L-train with an allergy attack) but ultimately gets one-note, as every one of the wizards’ increasingly senseless challenges (waiting for a bus at a bus stop; re-enacting the American Civil War; picking up dry cleaning; debating philosophy – it’s never quite clear why or on what basis any of these challenges exist) goes off the rails because of the wizards’ inability to stay focused, or to stop flirting. At some point, we become aware that these Wizards may or may not be baristas at a local coffee joint (and may or may not be role-players called Eliza and Dave); this ambiguity has the potential to be interesting, but in a world already so tenuously hinged to narrative rules, never becomes more than minimally affecting. Are we watching some idealistic baristas discover that their fantasy outlet has become less fulfilling? Or are we watching real Wizards and their fed-up referees try to adapt to the demands of the Great Mediocrity on earth: real jobs, grad school applications, and replacing the last of the creamer?
As in his recent hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Malloy’s music is as its best haunting, and a few songs in particular – the mournful solos of the two leads, the second-act opener – stand out as particularly memorable. Yet without a clear story to ground the wizards’ struggle, Blue Wizard/Black Wizard feels less like a piece of theatre and more like a giant inside joke: the point of which we are never invited to fully understand.
Blue Wizard/Black Wizard runs at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village, until December 22. See the Incubator Arts Project website for ticket information.