“Scotland, PA” is a 2019 stoner comedy musical, based on a 2001 movie set in 1975, which is, itself, based off “Macbeth,” a 1606 play believed to be based on a 1587 book. Many, many, centuries of power-hungry, tragic dudes. Watching the show is sort of like this author’s early experiences of getting high: you go into it thinking “this is a great idea! I’m super excited,” it kicks in suddenly and you’re like “oh no, what have I gotten myself into,” and then after enough time making yourself miserable wishing you hadn’t partaken it in the first place, you relax into it and accept that it’s the experience you’re having and there’s no way for you to stop what’s already happening to you. And then, with that knowledge, it’s kind of awesome. Would you recommend it to a friend? If it sounds like something they’d be into, sure. If they don’t seem interested, forcing them is way uncool. To each his own, man.
The musical, directed by Lonny Price, with a book by Michael Mitnick and music & lyrics by Adam Gwon, is playing until Dec. 8 at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. The show tells the story of the small town of Scotland, Pennsylvania (“Macbeth” takes place in Scotland — get it?). We know based on the exit sign that sits on stage before the show begins (scenic design by Anna Louizos) that it’s a depressed town: the rest stop, gas station and hotel have all closed. The only point of interest that seems to have survived is the knife and fork on the exit sign, on which our story hinges: at a burger joint that employs our leads, Mac and Pat.
Mac and Pat are high school sweethearts who, six years after Mac proposed with an onion ring, are happily (enough) married. They start the show working at Duncan’s burger restaurant, for Duncan (played by Jeb Brown), a cartoonishly evil man who rips off his employees and abuses his family, making sure to squelch Mac’s dreams every step of the way. Mac’s latest suggestion (past concepts have included chicken nuggets and a salad — can you imagine?) is to build a drive-thru, which Duncan dismisses. Mac seems relatively nonplussed by Duncan’s response, but Pat urges him that they deserve more. Pat’s determination, plus a group of three imaginary stoners (representing the witches of “Macbeth”) who give Mac a hit of their joint, lead him towards his destiny: the rise and fall of a fast-food empire. Mac and Pat “get rid of” Duncan and take over the lease, developing it into the burger spot of their dreams. Their eventual restaurant, “McBeths,” is eerily similar to “McDonald’s” (which, in the world of this play, doesn’t seem to exist), and the second act demonstrates what happens once the meek have inherited the earth. Because Mac was formerly downtrodden, is it okay for him to open up a corporation like McDonald’s? Since he befalls the same fate as the tragic hero he’s based on, the show implies: probably not.
Mac is played by Ryan McCarten, a dead ringer for both Adrian Grenier AND Freddie Prinze Jr (a 2002 tween dream come true). McCartan’s Mac has long hair and a chilled out attitude, starting the play mildly ambitious but ultimately complacent and happy to ride out his life drinking beers and smoking weed with his buddies. He becomes more engaging as we watch him descend into power-hungry madness over the course of the play. Taylor Iman Jones plays Pat, who convinces Mac that they deserve more than the life they grew up knowing. She’s particularly compelling in the second act, when she begins to doubt her ambitions and the cracks of her scheme begin to show, forcing her to come up with more and more desperate contingency plans. Megan Lawrence appears in act two as McDuff, a (staunchly vegetarian) private investigator trying to solve the mystery of Duncan’s murder. She’s very funny and very goofy. Jay Armstrong Johnson shines as Mac and Pat’s coworker, the clueless empath Banko, simultaneously adorable and cringey at every turn.
The show is amusing, but it would have been better if the audience could hear the songs. It’s clear the cast is full of fantastic voices, but it was as if someone had instructed them not to sing out or they were saving their voices for something they cared about more, which was disappointing in such an intimate venue. The energy stayed on stage rather than meeting the audience where we sat. Musicals should give the viewer permission to sit back and let the music and emotion wash over them, but in this case, each time a song began, I had to strain my ears to understand what they were saying and why. Other elements of the show felt slap-dashed together, like a six pack of beer with no bottle caps on any bottle, which made the show feel more like a scrappy scene study with salvaged props than a full-blown, believable production.
The biggest question I had about the show is, why now? Why the need to revive a 2000s movie about the ‘70s? This is the paranoia stoned moment when you’re like: ‘WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? WHY ARE WE HERE?’ In an era in which the world is falling apart yet the artistic response is more incisive, inclusive and powerful than ever, what does this show contribute to the conversation? Momentary, escapist respite from the news, perhaps. If you accept that it’s not going to give you a new perspective on the world or make you think deeply about our place in it or duty to make it better, it’s a fun night at the theater. We can hear Mac sing about his new burger idea: “I put bacon on it, cuz why not?” Why not, indeed: sit back, relax and allow yourself two hours and ten minutes of silly, Shakespeare-inspired fun.
Head here for tickets to “Scotland, PA”