Featured Content | Movies

REVIEW – “Theater Camp”: Stagecraft American Summer

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in the film THEATER CAMP. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Whenever a certain film feels like it was written to indirectly capitalize on an eventful life experience, the impact might be substantial. In that respect, I had no doubt the fly on the wall comedy Theater Camp would steal my heart, having lived through three years of high school theater. Yes, the events were an eternity ago by this point, and yet the memories still float around like fluffy clouds cascading an opulent blue sky. In the hands of directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, co-writing with Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, the familiar ritual takes a scathing, satirical turn. Very much in line with Christopher Guest or Greg Daniels, but forging a purely original path all the same, witty, and relatable. The latter, to a scary degree. 

While my brief theater training fell as an autumn/spring elective, and not as a summer hobby, the work ethic and founding principles needn’t be any different. If anything, it’s even more cutthroat during the warmer months. Nestled among the woodsy solitude of Upstate New York is a popular summer camp known as AdirondACTS. Under the ownership of head instructor Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), it has thrived with a modest annual turnout. Pre-season recruitment is in full force to boost admissions in a sluggish time where the finances simply are not as strong.  

But those efforts hit a dramatic stumble point when Joan falls ill from a seizure during a production of Bye Bye Birdie, exposing the camp to a hostile takeover. Though no one would imagine it’d be her Gen Y son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to step in without notice and fulfill the conditions of her will, tasked to save the camp’s fortunes, or expedite its closure to the rival rich kids, led by sharkish headmaster Caroline (Patti Harrison). Both ideas seem to blur together in the frenzy of still putting on the best show imaginable. 

The camp hosts multiple productions for campers to work on, amid the variety of craft courses training them in those intense rigors. Chief among them is the main stage play teaming up long-time staff composers Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt). In the wake of dueling tragedy and triumph, they stick their courage in writing a timely libretto honoring their leader, “Joan… Still.” The fear of closure, coupled with Rebecca-Diane’s own life goals away from camp, all but threaten to sever their friendship. Despite these indifferences, and Troy’s inept idea of business management, leaving no place to network with the enthusiastic young performers, the show must go on. 

Somehow, it does, and the product is an unpredictable rollercoaster that, for lack of more eloquent terminology, left me in stitches. Live theater paired with a freeform, improv-friendly mockumentary slant. And it all comes from a place of truth and experience. Gordon and company have been close friends growing up around the New York theater scene, all finding their own successes. Platt, of course, being the most prominent with Dear Evan Hansen. So, star power and charisma is not an issue, and he doles out both in equal variety, with Gordon close behind. Tatro often takes the mic on his own accord, a rampant scene-stealer with his aloof mindfulness.  

Freewheeling anarchy, and scathing realism needn’t be of any concern, either. Albeit, in an anecdotal sense. While Troy’s penny-pinching, and Rebecca-Diane’s newfound clarity do plenty to achieve a complete and well-rounded sense of plot, there’s more to take away in witnessing the varying ins and outs of a theatrical operation running behind the scenes. Like an anthology film where The visiting students/performers in training, for one hold nothing but surprises – namely Minari’s Alan Kim as a (pretending) stage agent, making smooth business deals. And Vivienne Sachs as Lainy, a prime candidate in Amos’s eyes for the lead role, while tackling a deep strain of professional insecurity. For the eccentric staff, Platt and Gordon are champions of endless repartee, allowing a step back for inexperienced newcomer Janet (a lightning quick Ayo Edibiri) to wreck the hierarchy. Or for stage tech Glenn (Galvin) to pull from his figurative hat of tricks when the moment strikes fitting (or not). It’s stunning what he can do in a pinch, his camaraderie with husband Platt natural without fault. 

The cast of THEATER CAMP. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

And that tends to be the given tone throughout, whatever occurs happens naturally, no reasonable mistakes. Even when it’s all gone wrong, it’s still flawless, destined to leave an audience in stitches. Almost like a modern-day Oscar Wilde if he were responsible for Waiting for Guffman. Gordon can certainly set the rules and boundaries for her fellow actors, following a given path while also riffing endlessly. And that works quite well for her. As much is Lieberman, the invisible player of the key quartet, comfortable staying behind the camera. Sharp eyes like his play the tight inquisition card alongside DP Nate Hurtsellers (Our Father) to effectively call shots in a neutral field, and to capture them without disturbing the creative flow Pratt is spearheading. And often without realizing; for all of them, creative ingenuity of this degree is purely second nature. It would help if they were all running on the same braincell more often, but still the range of viewpoints only allows this ride to build in fervor. 

The sketch-like narrative might not settle ideally with every viewer. But it does wonders to foretell every unique perspective of the camp going experience, and of one’s appreciation toward theater overall. Whether or not you’re a stage nerd, I feel your mileage may still vary greatly when making a reservation for Theater Camp, while the summer season’s still active. I adored its idea of comedy, leaning in on observing the frenzy of creative passion, and the triumph of strict diligence in stagecraft occupying its whipped tension. Balancing the two is a robust juggling act all its own, celebrating the joy of self-expression no matter the hurdles. This one is a gem, quite easily the year’s best comedy. And one whose following may hopefully grow beyond when the curtain falls. (A-; 4/5) 

Theater Camp is currently playing in Seattle (Regal Meridian, Thornton Place, SIFF Uptown), Bellevue (Lincoln Square) and Tacoma (Grand Cinema), with further expansion August 4; rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive/drug references; 92 minutes.