If you like Mamma Mia, there’s a fair chance you’ll like Jeff Daniels’ new play, Diva Royale, which runs through December 29 at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea. It follows the antics of three Celine Dion-obsessed suburban moms–sarcastic Helen Millerbee (Rhiannon Ragland), sheltered domestic goddess Mary Catherine Carlton (Kristin Shields), and smartphone addict Lynnette Taylor-Tyler (Kate Thomsen)–whose whirlwind trip to NYC to see their idol in concert falls apart in a series of increasingly improbable and surreal bits of physical comedy.
There are lots of genuinely funny moments in Diva, mostly due to the excellent comedic timing of Ragland, Shields, and Rusty Mewha (as “Generic Man”). But the show is hampered by overly stretched jokes (the women’s meeting and bonding is a ballet set to the entirety of the four-and-a-half-minute “My Heart Will Go On”) and repeated ones (like Mary Catherine’s chirpy reply of “ten!” each time she hears “nein,” the German word for no). The flattest joke is the one used to propel the women to NYC: Helen’s near-death experience when her fat husband gets on top during sex and nearly smothers her with his “man-boob.”
Framing sex with fat people as repulsive and life-threatening is a tired and cheap cliche, but the larger problem is that the audience is set up to laugh at a woman’s tearful retelling of a disturbing sexual encounter. The ridiculous word “man-boob” gives the audience permission to laugh, but I found myself asking why Helen didn’t do anything to stop her husband. I wasn’t the only one; after the show, I heard a group of women asking each other why Helen didn’t hit or kick her husband.
Instead, it’s decided Helen needs to see La Dion live. After the women board the plane, the audience is subjected to improbable situations and almost-offensive stereotypical characters at a dizzying pace reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory: LaGuardia’s short runways cause a bumpy landing. A turbaned Uber driver ferries them to the hotel while speaking broken English. The ham packed in Mary Catherine’s suitcase leaks glaze all over her Celine-replica dress. Lynnette loses higher brain function when a stranger steals her beloved phone. Celine turns out to be a German drag queen named Heinrich. This causes Helen to try to throw herself off a bridge, but she’s saved by a Jewish businessman toting homemade gefilte fish with magical healing properties. (Don’t worry, they find the phone.)
Broad comedy is incredibly tough to do well. Success relies on a certain reality that grounds the world of the play, despite the gags. Unfortunately, Diva Royale forgets that the best divas are more than glitz and glamor.