Off-Broadway Review: TEETH (Playwrights Horizon)

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by Paola Bellu on April 2, 2024

in Theater-New York


How can we eradicate misogyny? Meet vagina dentata, a penis-eating vagina, the product of an ancient folk tale that exists in virtually every culture, and it has now landed at Playwrights Horizons in the form of a shameless, outrageous, campy-horror musical, Teeth. It is based on a eponymous 2007 film written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein that I haven’t seen but I can tell you that Anna K. Jacobs, who wrote the music and co-wrote the book with lyricist Michael R. Jackson (A Strange Loop) made sure Teeth is steadily clever, funny, and always unique.

Jenna Rose Husli, Wren Rivera, Alyse Alan Louis, Phoenix Best, Helen J Shen
Courtney Bassett, Helen J Shen, Lexi Rhoades,
Alyse Alan Louis, Wren Rivera, Phoenix Best, Jenna Rose Husli

In the recreational room of a small parish somewhere in America, a self-righteous Pastor (Steven Pasquale) is preaching to a Christian abstinence group called the Promise Keeper Girls (Courtney Bassett, Phoenix Best, Jenna Rose Husli, Lexi Rhoades, Wren Rivera, and Helen J Shen, all particularly sassy). Among the teens, there is the Pastor’s stepdaughter Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), the portrait of purity adored by the abusive preacher and hated by his incel son, Brad (Will Connolly). Another boy, Ryan (Jared Loftin), films the sermon for a TV channel, a reminder of the commercialization of religion.

Alyse Alan Louis, Jason Gotay
Steven Pasquale and cast

What starts like an angry speech on the dangers of the original sin — “Woman! Where is your shame?” Pasquale adds with righteous rage — ends with the girls singing “Precious Gift”, a flippanthammy hysterical hymn on preserving virginity: “His word is very clear, He gave us two choices / take your pick — are you a virgin or a whore?” Meanwhile, they trash a town girl who got pregnant and is no longer part of the group, clearly forgetting Christ’s fundamental “He that is without sin among you…” This town of Eden is a mirror of our times in which hypocritical religious control-freaks rule over Christians who conveniently forget they are worshiping a Jewish refugee who preached tolerance and hung out with sex workers.

Will Connolly, Alyse Alan Louis
Will Connolly, Steven Pasquale, Jared Loftin

Brad, Dawn’s creepy stepbrother, is part of a different cult, another extreme ideology headed not by a pastor but by an online voice, somebody called Godfather. Physically abused by the preacher, and suffering from an incident which I will not reveal because it will crack you up when you hear it, Brad shares the group’s belief that “feminocracy” is destroying the world by dismantling patriarchy. They meet in a virtual reality meeting platform called TruthSeeker Premium.

Alyse Alan Louis, Jason Gotay

Jared Loftin, Alyse Alan Louis

All the “do’s and don’ts” are obviously insufficient to manage the natural sexual urges our teens experience, especially Dawn, who is salivating after her boyfriend Tobey (Jason Gotay), an absent-minded stud obsessed with her purity. As Dawn, Alyse Alan Louis is hysterical, constantly turning from the modest God-fearing teen to the raging-hormones girl, using her voice and body to their full extent to make both points (Taylor Williams‘ casting is impeccable for all roles). From all possible cherubic positions and high notes during an ironic duet “Modest is Hottest” to a possessed woman in “Shame in My Body,” Jackson’s lyrics oscillate between desire (“My panties are wet / but it’s not blood or sweat”) and the self-loathing that comes with purity culture (“cause a woman’s hole leads straight to hell”). Raja Feather Kelly‘s choreography is hammy and bubbly enough to elicit chuckles throughout both songs.

Alyse Alan Louis, Jason Gotay
Steven Pasquale

Shameful Dawn and Tobey decide to wash off their sinful thoughts in a lake — sort of a rebirth — but the darkness, closeness, wetness, you know? Tobey tosses off a marriage proposal and his clothes, like taking out a chastity belt key. Dawn agrees to the marriage but says “no” to his sexual insistence, tries to push him off but he doesn’t stop. Too bad, because Dawn has a vagina dentata that doesn’t like abusers; set designer Adam Rigg placed a hole in the middle of the stage so we only see what happens from their waists up. But the blood spurting, the severed member waved like a flag by a horrified Dawn, created gobsmacked guffaws from the packed house.

Will Connolly
Jared Loftin, Alyse Alan Louis

With the help of the closeted Ryan, Dawn understands that her vagina does not bite with consent. As men take advantage of her (including Pasquale’s hilarious turn as a gynecologist), “Dentata” punishes them one after another up to an apocalyptic finale with blood everywhere, severed phalli, lots of violence, and real fire. Sarah Benson’s direction, which kept everything working like a clock, suddenly becomes chaotic, with music swiftly bursting into harder tunes, probably to prove that both extremes, all extremes, kill. Up to now, Jacobs’ music alternated between Christian rock, folk, and catchy pop, a refreshing score completely in tune with the provocative lyrics; in the finale, she lets go to total mayhem like the end of a John Landis movie. It’s the only part of the show that makes less sense.

Steven Pasquale
Alyse Alan Louis

More than the edgy sexual content and horror, Teeth is a raunchy musical that deals with other heavy subjects — the idiocy and hypocrisy of extreme ideology, how it creates shame, violence, and ultimately death. Together with an uber-talented committed cast, Robert Pickens and Katie Gell‘s hair, wig, and makeup design, and an orchestra led by Patrick Sulken that never overwhelms the singers, Jacobs, Jackson and Benson put together a little jewel that smacks us with reality while constantly tickling us with its anachronistic absurdity. Bigots with no sense of humor are also welcome for a good dose of mad fun.

photos by Chelcie Parry

Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street
opened March 19, 2024

ends on April 28, 2024
run time: 1 hours, 50 minutes with no intermission
for tickets visit Playwrights Horizons

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