Play in this “Traffic” — With Caution



Time-surfing musical disappoints, but McCartney dazzles

“Nighttime Traffic” — one of the 27 full productions in the New York Musical Theatre Festival — is a classic case of two steps forward, one step back. Then wash, rinse, repeat for the next 90 minutes.

The occasionally profound but ultimately unfulfilling tale scores points for its gay love story and its unconventional time paradox plot. But by curtain call, even those rooting for creator Alex Wyse (books, lyrics, music) will find it tough going to say his new show makes a case for the claim that every artsy homosexual has the goods to be a multitasking showbiz savant.

That’s too bad — because there’s much to admire here. But the potential for future greatness is cold comfort when you’ve gone out of your way for a nice little night of Off-Off-Broadway entertainment.

Now for some good news: A multitude of thorny issues dredged up by the premise will inspire great table conversation after the show, and probably beyond that.

Like the way cars speeding down a NYC street seem to blur when viewed through a foggy after-hours window, “Nighttime Traffic” follows the intense, condensed journey of Max and Calder — who experience one hour for every minute of real-world time (after ingesting some magic pills sold to them by Audrey, the nurse who’s prepping Calder for a heart transplant).

The boys, both mere 24-year-old pups, use that precious gift of elongated time by taking a scalpel to their in-flux relationship. Somber Calder is tiring of the party boy lifestyle — while Max is squandering his gift as a promising writer by dancing his cares away. As we eavesdrop on their angsty why-me woes, it’s pretty apparent that the pill is a thoroughly mixed blessing. Sometimes, unexpected introspection is more than a guy can handle — and when you and hubby are bogged down by destructive tiffs and vengeful hissy fits, it’s every man for himself.

The only truly compelling person on the scene is Audrey — a conflicted soul who exudes complexity. When she leaves the stage, you’ll do little more than twiddle your thumbs until her return (90 minutes with her alone would have been a far better use of our time). She’s played by Liz McCartney — whose vocal talent and charisma overshadows every other aspect of the proceedings.

That’s not necessarily a diss on the two other cast members (Matt Dengler and Jacob Hoffman). They’re both talented singers and actors — but they never manage to rise above the material they’re given, and they only achieve the believable chemistry of a couple in love when they harmonize.

Shame on you, Alex Wyse, for creating a musical with two gay leads which should have us all wanting to charter a bus to Albany and demand gay marriage. Instead, the relentless parade of queer shallowness left me defensive and depressed and mulling over the possibility of kissing a girl.

The lyrics, like the plot, deliver fleeting moments of brilliance surrounded by deep and wide pools of stunning mediocrity. Too often, the words express utterly pedestrian observations while lurching towards contrived rhymes. As for the score, Wyse’s overuse of vocal crescendos quickly arrives at a “Spring Awakenings” meets “American Idol” tipping point from which there’s no dignified return.

Too harsh? Hardly. This should have been a destination event for every young, still-searching gay boy who longs to see his ideal self represented on the stage. Not every piece of theater needs to be the stuff of affirming fantasia — but the creator of this effort could have at least strived for a nuanced look at his generation’s warts-and-all struggles.

Fortunately, in the third act of this intermissionless tale, Audrey makes a final triumphant appearance with a showstopping number. Dressed in a Liza-like black sequined outfit, she owns her spotlight and rips the roof off with a performance that makes the previous 80 minutes totally worth slogging through.

The evening should’ve stopped on that high note. Instead, we’re given a sappy closing number where, spoiler alert, Max has an epiphany and row, row, rows his boat down the River Styx to rescue Calder from the choppy flames of eternal Hell. Seriously. That’s how the thing ends. Heaven help us, Mary!

Through Oct. 10, at Urban Stages Theater (259 W. 30th St. btw. 7th and 8th Aves.) For tickets, call 866-811-4111. Visit www.nymf.org.