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’Theater Camp’: A heartfelt production

| Thursday, September 28, 2023

Maria Tobia

The main character has a seizure, then she falls into a coma. That is how “Theater Camp” starts. Most films don’t start this way. That being said, “Theater Camp” is not like most films. Molly Gordon’s (“Booksmart,” “The Bear”), “Theater Camp” is a fun, light-hearted, low-stakes comedy. Whether you’ve done theater your whole life (note: I have) or never seen a play in your life, there is something to enjoy.

Setting the scene

The movie starts with a focus on camp founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) in the guise of a documentary. She immediately suffers a seizure at a children’s theater production. This is where the movie shows its secret weapon: the humor that can arrive with a fake documentary. Introductory text provides context on the characters and events, and some of the best jokes in the film can be found here. The documentary style not only offers jokes but also acts as a welcome to those not in-the-know, giving what feels like a genuine inside-look into a real theater. 

The film’s focus on what a real children’s theater production is like may be its greatest strength. In any production, there are specific types of people you will encounter. I’ve met the type of people in this movie — multiple times — and it demonstrates the film’s greatest strength. This movie knows what theater is really like. 

The film’s screenwriters are no strangers to theater. Three of the film’s stars — Ben Platt, Noah Galvin and Molly Gordon — wrote the screenplay. Platt is son of prolific Broadway and film producer Marc Platt, and Ben Platt himself starred in multiple Broadway productions, winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his career-defining role as the titular character in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Galvin took on the same role, but he is also known for his work on screen as a star on the ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals” as well as “Booksmart,” alongside co-star Gordon. Gordon originated the role of Alice Spenser in the off-Broadway production “Alice By Heart.” All of this is to say, these artists know Broadway, and their love of theater is visible in the film.

And the actors take the stage

No matter how well-written a script may be (which this film certainly is), direction and acting remain important. I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only did Molly Gordon write and star, but “Theater Camp” serves as her directorial debut. The film’s direction is good and utilizes the mockumentary style expertly. Gordon’s acting in the film stands strongest when paired with scene partner and real-life friend Platt. Platt has made a career of playing sad, anxious or awkward teenagers. His performance is a breath of fresh air: assertive, snarky and a bit of a jerk. Galvin gives a solid performance as a technical director who dreams of performing on the stage.

The actors that most surprised me though, were the campers. The aspiring talent agent Alan Park (“Minari’s” Alan Kim) is given the funniest dialogue of the children, while a stage-combat demonstration by Lainy (newcomer Vivienne Sachs) stands as perhaps the most laugh-out-loud moment in the film, bolstered only by the earnestness of Ayo Edebiri’s (“The Bear,” “Bottoms”) Janet Walch. 

Edebiri’s role in the film is small but memorable. While it does not appear shoehorned in, her scenes do feel separate from the rest of the movie’s events. That being said, her performance is great. A moment where she tries to avoid suspicion of her lack of theater background — she is introduced in the film with a text card stating she lied on her resume — solely through the use of deflection gives the audience a great scene with her “The Bear“ co-star Gordon. 

A standing ovation

“Theater Camp” is a triumph. It wears its love for theater on its sleeve, while still having enough humor and heartfelt moments for those who are not part of this audience. Does my past in theater affect my view on this movie? Most definitely. If you’ve been in theater, you should see this movie. There is a lot you can take away from it. And if you haven’t been? You’ll still find something to love.

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