A couple of years back, Drew Droege wowed audiences and critics alike with “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” his wickedly funny solo show about a garrulous guest at a same-sex wedding run amok, directed by none other than Michael Urie.
And now the playwright/ performer has returned to the SoHo Playhouse with another queer comedy of manners, “Happy Birthday Doug,” where he embodies an assortment of blowhards, drunkards, and bitchy queens who have gathered at a tony wine bar in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, to celebrate Doug’s 41st birthday.
Not that these revelers are completely despicable. In Droege’s capable hands, each reveals a tender, slightly tragic fragility beneath their shiny armor.
One by one they chat with the birthday boy who, as it happens, has recently published a novel. Most throw measured praise his way, barely concealing their envy. When they insist they’ve read the book, it’s not easy to believe them.
My favorite partygoer is Jason, who claims he is sober, but as he natters away to Doug it’s clear he’s hopped up on some illicit substance or another. He also insists that his life is super amazing since he quit acting. Turns out he barely knows the guest of honor and wasn’t even invited.
“Listen Honey, you don’t ever have to invite me. I’ll always show up,” he says, in a pathetic haze of cluelessness.
There’s also Brian, the hyper-aware, 26-year-old waiter at the bar who — quelle surprise — is writing a screenplay and is also a DJ. He takes political correctness to the extreme, refusing to play hip-hop for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation. He apologizes for using the word “guys” to describe his roommates because one identifies as genderqueer.
“The word is assaultive and assumptive,” he declares, without irony.
We also meet the loud, obnoxious married couple, Harrison and Jackson, new parents enjoying a rare night out away from their baby daughter, Thessaly.
Christopher, perhaps in his late 60s, is the oldest guest at the party and brings a historical perspective to the proceedings. A serial namedropper who mentions legends like Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall, he recounts how he and his partner never had an open relationship due to fear of contracting HIV.
“We went through so much and lost so many,” he says.
It’s a supremely poignant moment in an otherwise fizzy play.
Doug’s ex-boyfriend, Steven, humblebrags about becoming engaged and working on a Netflix show. He is somewhat horrified at the wild, drug-fueled shenanigans.
“It’s just… Wednesday,” he says flatly.
As delivered by Droege, it’s the funniest line of the night.
There’s even a visit from the ghost of Oscar Wilde, master of the drawing room comedy, which this piece recalls. Wilde is quick to distill a key theme in the play.
“Every one of us is just a trembling collection of nerves and desire, occasionally stumbling upon victory,” he observes. “Bitch, we’re all doing the best we can.”
Finally, we meet the host himself, sloshed, who delivers a scathing speech assessing the evening’s events.
“Happy Birthday Doug” is every bit as caustically delightful as the previous effort. Droege has brought his original team — Urie is now the lead producer, and Tom DeTrinis (associate producer and understudy for Droege in “Bright Colors”) is now the director. Urie, by the way, currently can be seen stealing scenes in “Grand Horizons” on Broadway.
While Droege does an impressive job delineating each character, I wanted more. Perhaps a quick change of shirt or glasses would not only help distinguish each guest, but would amp up the hilarity (think of the zany outfits on “Schitt’s Creek,” for instance). Throughout the entire piece, Droege wears a rumpled, beige button-down shirt (no doubt meant as a blank canvas) that no character in this play would ever dare wear to a party.
To be sure, “Happy Birthday Doug” is a wryly observed appraisal of gay culture. You will recognize your friends, maybe even yourself, in Droege’s uncanny portrayals. Let’s face it — for generations, certain gay men have been preoccupied with appearances, booze, drugs, and birthday parties.
If this is how Doug celebrates his 41st birthday, imagine what the bash was like for his 40th.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOUG | SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., btwn. Sixth Ave. Ave. & Varick St. | Through Mar. 29: Thu.-Sat. at 9 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$59 at HappyBirthdayDoug.com | One hr., no intermission