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When it rains parody and pollution

 The West Side of Manhattan in haze
Ralph Gardner Jr.
The West Side of Manhattan in haze

With apologies to Charles Dickens, Tuesday night in New York City was both the best of times and the worst of times. The worst because an unhealthy haze had descended on Manhattan from Canada’s wildfires, bathing the city in an eerie light that left the distinct impression that all was not right with the world.

The best because I took my daughters to see Titanique, a campy off-Broadway parody of Titanic, the 1997 blockbuster film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. My daughter Lucy has spent the last five months exclusively caring for her newborn twin daughters. So she was eager to make the most of her night off. Her husband Malcolm would be administering the girls’ 9 p.m. feeding.

When we arrived at the theater early the usher directed us both to our seats and to the theater’s basement bar. I doubt it was because we alone looked like we needed a drink. Everybody needed a drink. The air quality was apocalyptic. I don’t associate the theater experience with alcohol consumption. I’ll typically have done my drinking beforehand. But if ever there was a night that called for a mood enhancer this was it.

So I followed Lucy to the bar where she ordered both of us tequila sodas with lime. They came in the adult equivalent of sippy cups – clear plastic with lids that snapped shut and featured a convenient orifice that one could slide open or closed to prevent spilling on yourself or innocent bystanders. My other daughter Gracie joined us shortly before the show started.

As the theater began to fill up it became clear that this was a drinking crowd and more than a drinking crowd a party crowd. The anticipation felt so thick that, like the grisly air outside, you could have cut it with a plastic fork. The festive mood might also have been triggered by the spectacle of a brazen blue diamond the size of a throw pillow that spun above the stage. That was a reference to the fictional 56-carat bauble, The Heart of the Ocean, that featured prominently in the movie.

The excitement indicated that some if not many in the audience had already seen Titanique, more than once. I knew little about the play before I bought tickets except that a musical whose fulcrum is a manic, stage-hogging Celine Dion impersonator – comedian Nicole Parker who didn’t so much imitate the pop superstar as run her over in a sequined 18-wheeler – offers a large margin for error.

The movie had included only one of the Celine’s songs -- My Love Will Go On, the Oscar-winning love anthem– but Titanique managed to stuff most of her hits into the show’s ninety minutes; Ms. Parker inserting herself into the doomed voyage whenever appropriate and more often when not.

Lucy pointed out to me that there was some discussion around the final melodramatic scene in the movie since Leo didn’t really need to die of hypothermia. There was more than enough room on Kate Winslet’s floating plank to save both of them. Needless to say, Titanique milked the controversy for all it was worth, Lindsay Heather Pearce, who reprised the Winslet role of Rose, tearing across center stage strapped to a door that, when she frantically turned her back to the audience bore Celine Dion’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star. If that makes no sense that was probably the point.

It would be unscientific to claim that the majority of the audience was of any particular persuasion. But the references to TV shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the Broadway musical Wicked, and queer icon Jennifer Coolidge in the HBO series White Lotus and her now famous line – “The gays are trying to kill me” – exploded like firecrackers before the knowing crowd.

The only people who seemed to be enjoying themselves more than the paying customers were cast members such as plus size comedian Russell Daniels, reprising the role of Rose’s fortune hunter mother Ruth in pearls, a frilly blouse and a fascinator that resembled a kamikaze seagull.

After the applause ceased and we reluctantly filed out of the theater it was hard to escape the feeling that, as much fun as the evening was, we’d also been part of a political moment. Not just because it happens to be Pride Month. But because the reason drag and queer culture may be as popular with straight as with gay audiences is that it gives us license to jettison our own inhibitions.

My friend Aris has a saying, even though he didn’t invent it: “If you’re not weird a little, you’re weird a lot.” The people you have to fear aren’t those that swoon around in feather headdresses, it’s button-down politicians who would have us believe they’re above reproach and therefore deserve to make the rules for the rest of us.

After the show we retired to the venerable Old Town Bar, near Union Square, to celebrate Lucy’s night off with burgers and beer. I insisted my daughters see the establishment’s majestic century-old Hinsdale urinals. I’m not sure what the Old Town’s bathroom policy is these days – I spotted doors marked men, women and either -- but I like to think we’re making some progress as a civilization, even as pollution rains down from above, when my daughters don’t have to seek anyone’s permission to go sightseeing in the men’s room.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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