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Think of Donna Hoke’s new play, Finding Neil Patrick Harris, produced by Nu Sass Productions at Caos on F, perhaps D.C.’s smallest theater venue, as a road-trip movie. That is, a road trip minus the road, minus the car, and minus the camera—unless one counts the characters’ smartphones, whose screens are easily seen when the space is only three rows of chairs deep.
The quest begins at a spa in upstate New York (Hoke’s script suggests Buffalo, where she lives), where two nail technicians, Katie (Aubri O’Connor) and Cha-Cha (Selena Gill), are giving a mani-pedi to Lucio (Joshua Poole), a favorite among their regular clients. There’s a certain rivalry between the two techs as they vie for Lucio’s attention, whether it’s Katie talking about the altercation her daughter had at school, or the five TV pilots Cha-Cha has written that no studio will buy, or the sardonic names Cha-Cha gives to gel nail colors. It’s a favorite way for Lucio to unwind before heading home to his husband. When the discussion turns to the application of makeup for funerals, Lucio notes that he wishes to be cremated and to have his ashes flung at the Doogie Howser, M.D. and How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris to make up for not connecting with the famous actor at a party many years in the past.
As Katie and Cha-Cha bicker, Lucio suddenly dies. It’s one of many bits of morbid physical comedy in this show. Aided by some clever lighting design by Hailey Laroe, we see color drain from Lucio’s face even as Katie and Cha-Cha flush. The scene culminates with Poole executing a final face-plant.
What follows are Katie and Cha-Cha’s misadventures as they attempt to follow through with Lucio’s final wish, while getting on each other’s nerves. But before they can stake out a spot in Midtown Manhattan to ambush of their intended target, they must steal Lucio’s cremains (for those unfamiliar with the process, cremation results not just in ashes but bone fragments) from his shut-in twin sister, Lucy (the second in a series of roles played by Poole).
In the process, there’s some taboo-breaking comedy as Katie and Cha-Cha show a lack of reverence for the dignity of a celebrity and human remains—shocking to some, but possibly cathartic to someone who has been drawn into another’s unconventional funerary plans (or lack thereof). Poole applies mime, and various clown walks to create his various characters. And there’s some funny slapstick wrestling between Katie and Cha-Cha in which O’Connor and Gill make good use of their height difference, as Gill climbs up on O’Connor’s back. (No movement coach is credited, so one assumes the physical comedy is a collaboration between director Bess Kaye and the actors; the small venue always makes the action fun.)
Between scene changes, Katie and Cha-Cha engage in monologues, allowing time for the other two actors to make changes to the simple set. Katie offers up confessional stories about her daughter, the breakup of her marriage, and the eighth grade talent show in which she and a friend performed Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine (one of many references to the comedy duo in the script). Being the taller girl, Katie found herself playing the straight-man role of Bud Abbott, and her friend was seen as the funny one by playing the clownish and much shorter Lou Costello. This skit has led to a lifetime of Katie thinking she would be better liked if only she were funnier. It’s also the dynamic she fears she is replicating with Cha-Cha.
Cha-Cha’s monologues, on the other hand, are delivered more in the matter of a stand-up routine, focusing on being the unambitious daughter of a beloved comedian, and the sister of a successful attorney.
Kaye keeps the production fast-paced, allowing the trio of O’Connor, Gill, and Poole to exercise their comedic chops. O’Connor and co-producer Ileana Madison Blustein have designed the visual appearance of the set, costumes, and props, opting for simple backgrounds to draw attention to the colors the nail techs deal in. A particularly clever example is how they costume their two main characters with Katie wearing a denim-blue and leopard-print combo that brings together the simple and flamboyant, while Cha-Cha’s black T-shirt sports the cover design of Pink Floyd’s iconic album The Dark Side of the Moon in which white light is refracted by a prism into colors of the rainbow.
There is an oft-repeated meme that summarizes the road-trip genre and other pop-culture quests as: “Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.” If making friends out of frenemies or learning to be kinder to oneself counts, then this is true about Finding Neil Patrick Harris. For that reason it’s easy to imagine this 90-minute play being adapted to film—there might even be a small role for a former child actor turned stage and screen star.
Donna Hoke’s Finding Neil Patrick Harris, directed by Bess Kaye and presented by Nu Sass Productions, runs through June 9 at Caos on F. It will be presented in repertoire with Crystal Skillman’s Open, opening April 28, and Lillian Brown’s The Oreo Complex, opening May 20. nusass.com. $10–$30.
Editor’s note: This post has been edited to clarify that this is not the world premiere of Finding Neil Patrick Harris.