Last fall, the theater company known as Fake Friends had one of the most attention-getting shows of the season, and not just because of its title. The troupe’s livestreamed production “Circle Jerk” was a viral hit, amassing Twitter love from Sarah Paulson, Roxane Gay and Hari Nef, and extending its run before briefly returning on demand in January.
Its dynamic use of a real theater space mapped a live experience against a landscape of (literally) inside-the-box Zoom plays, while also tackling those restrictions head-on, thanks to self-aware, meme-ready campiness and sharp commentary on lives lived increasingly online.
With a production co-sign from the playwright Jeremy O. Harris and his very digital following, the show propelled two of its members, Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, into internet notoriety. They were tapped to adapt “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” for the virtual stage, and secured funding to turn their first-ever collaboration into another work of live internet theater.
Along with the company’s dramaturges, Catherine María Rodríguez and Ariel Sibert, the two have reworked “This American Wife,” a half-confessional, half-delusional treatise on gay men’s worship of TV’s “Real Housewives” franchise, which they first staged at Yale Cabaret in 2017.
“We’re all huge theater nerds who can break out deep conversations about ‘Fefu and Her Friends’ in the same breath that we’re talking about Lady Gaga’s last tweet,” Harris, Breslin’s former New Haven roommate, said on a recent FaceTime call. “It’s a real love of high and low, and a rigorous relationship to both.”
Breslin and Foley met backstage at a Yale production of Harris’s “water sports; or insignificant white boys” in 2017, where they discovered a mutual love of both experimental theater and the popular Bravo franchise.
“Spoiler alert: They’re the same form,” Foley quipped on a recent Zoom call.
“We’re really fascinated with what a camera does to a performer,” Breslin added. “What does the presence of a camera change about your behavior, about how you present yourself?”
Unlike “Circle Jerk,” a satirical takedown of white gay culture laden with musical theater references, this project takes formal cues from lensed images. It’s styled as an episode of “Real Housewives” run amok, and the team cites French surrealist film, the photography of Man Ray, and the melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk as major inspirations.
“This American Wife” follows autofictional versions of Breslin, Foley and Powell as they arrive at a glamorous McMansion and recount their relationships to reality television and the impulse to humiliate oneself for attention.
Fused with a litany of the Housewives’ actual phrases, the three performers detail personal, often traumatic, facts about themselves, echoing the franchise’s televised oversharing.
And as their competing narratives become increasingly revealing and damaging, the show becomes a semi-improvised, high-concept dialectic on identity and “realness.”
“The show directly confronts this visual internet world of the Housewives and how they’re endlessly used as GIFs, decontextualized from possible tragedies in their lives,” Breslin said.
While the “Housewives” shows draw steady social-media chatter, the intensity of attention seemed to reach a fever pitch during lockdown. “Because we’ve had this year off, a lot of people were watching the ‘Real Housewives’ on both a surface and an intellectual level,” Powell said.
Queer viewers have a particular interest in debates over how real reality TV really is. “I think queer people have a real stake in this division of reality and fakery — what gets deemed real and what gets deemed fake,” Breslin said.
“Within the gay community there’s a big tendency to look at the pre-coming-out period as a dark age — to foster this narrative of being a fake self, or playing a character and telling narratives that weren’t true, while still living a life,” said Foley.
“That experience of a lie that is lived-in is integral to me,” he added.
Early rehearsals at a West Village townhouse previously owned by Sarah Jessica Parker saw the team spend hours reviewing “Real Housewives” footage, determining which eye-rolls and gestures would best evoke the essence of the conspicuous rich, and which could be included as pre-existing GIFs.
There and at the Long Island mansion where the company completed tech rehearsals — and from which it will livestream — flowed a heady combination of after-hours grad school discourse and pure farce. Wigged performers yelled Kandi Burruss quotes at refrigerators and other domestic essentials, which would later be fitted with livestreaming GoPro cameras.
The character played by Powell, a Black actor, is new to this iteration — the fourth, following two at Yale and one for Next Door at New York Theater Workshop. It brings race into the former two-man show, responding to a crucial element Breslin and Foley felt missing from their original script.
Breslin and Foley said that incorporating Powell — an understudy in Harris’s Tony Award-nominated “Slave Play” on Broadway — was an obvious choice, given his “encyclopedic knowledge” of the franchise, and what his addition would do for the piece’s dramaturgy.
“I remember talking to them about the Housewives that they gave voice to in the show,” Powell said. “For obvious reasons, there were voices that were not there, but who were alluded to in the text.”
“There is something easily identifiable for me with how femininity lives within the body of a Black woman that didn’t resonate with me in the white women,” he added, describing that exploration as “really enticing.”
The show, which to him now “feels like a brand-new piece,” aims to critique the role of race, not just within queer fandoms, but within the franchise itself, whose lack of diversity has been called out in major publications, from The New York Times to a Hollywood Reporter essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“We have the first Black woman on ‘The Real Housewives of New York’ in 2021,” Breslin pointed out. “What does that say about what these shows are instructing people on what New York is?”
In 2020, the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star NeNe Leakes called its creator Andy Cohen racist on Twitter, shortly after exiting the show.
“The conversation around what’s going on behind the scenes with NeNe and Bravo is fascinating to me,” Powell said. “It’s the same conversation that’s happening around the country — how the tenets of white supremacist culture exist everywhere.”
Harris, who has used his recent financial success to fund several, mostly Black-led, theater initiatives, said he finds Fake Friends’ mission “really exciting.”
“If you are a person of color, you are generally demanded to write something that puts your entire identity on the line,” he added. “I get very annoyed that it’s very easy for a white person to write something mundane that risks nothing, to get acclaim. Having friends who are so willing to ask hard questions about what their personhood in this country means is exhilarating.”
FourthWall Theatrical, a two-woman production company composed of Jana Bezdek and Jen Hoguet, is producing the work with Harris. “This American Wife” will be their inaugural production.
According to Breslin, Bezdek introduced herself as a lover of “three things: feminist theater, Brecht, and musicals.”
“I used to work in reality TV so I can’t watch it for relaxation,” she said. “But this is such a complex, intelligent piece, that is not just reflecting our obsession with ‘The Real Housewives’ back on us, but reflecting ourselves back on us.”
This American Wife
Through June 6; thisamericanwife.live