September 28, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
Live theater can make audiences laugh out loud, break down in tears, and can draw goosebumps from even the most callous attendees. While such physical responses might be normal, live theater rarely causes physical, life-threatening harm.
Yet, this is exactly what happens within the first scene of “Theater Camp.” Co-created by Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt, the film chronicles a fateful, hilarious summer at AdirondACTS theater camp.
The mockumentary opens with a musical number during which the camp’s beloved founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris), collapses from a stroke in (cue title card) “the first ‘Bye-Bye Birdie’-related injury in the history of Passaic County.” Forced to pivot from their original subject, the fictional filmmakers follow Joan’s son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), as he attempts to run the camp.
Clearly out of his element, Troy knows nothing of musical theater and quickly learns that AdirondACTS is deep in debt and at risk of foreclosure. Thus, the dude-bro turns to unconventional fundraising methods as a last-ditch effort to save the camp – enlisting some die-hard campers in the process.
Meanwhile, the daily operations of the camp hinge upon the codependent best friendship of music and drama directors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt), who met at AdirondACTS as children. Together, they write and direct the summer’s featured production. This year, they elect to honor the camp’s roots with “Joan, Still,” a musical biography of the camp’s founder. Assisting with the production is stage manager Glenn (Galvin), costume designer Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), and newbie teacher Janet (Ayo Edebiri).
As the summer starts to heat up, so do tensions across the camp. Troy disagrees with neighboring Camp Lakeside as conflict brews between Rebecca-Diane and Amos, leaving campers wondering if they’ll have a camp to attend next summer. Will the single night performance of “Joan, Still” be enough to keep the camp afloat, or will AdirondACTS have to close down forever?
“Theater Camp” started as a proof-of-concept short film debuting in 2020. The feature length film then premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where it was met with acclaim and a distribution deal. The real-life friendship between Platt and Gordon translates well to the screen, as the two met at acting camp as kids. The tight-knit relationships amongst the creators likely contributed to the warmhearted atmosphere of the film — which was filmed in 19 days and was largely improvised.
This allowed for some spectacular performances and gags to rise to the surface. Edebiri is effortlessly funny, and her teaching scenes are a masterclass in improvisation and comedic timing. Lee Graham slips in some creative quips, and Galvin’s quiet talent deservedly takes center stage in the final act.
I, admittedly, never attended a theater camp, nor would I self-identify as a theater kid. Because of this, I’ve accepted that a good portion of the film’s verisimilitude and Broadway references are lost on me. However, I think this is what makes “Theater Camp” so good. I don’t need to be “in the know” to recognize the humor that is the atrocity of using a “tear stick,” or the shady dealings of “Throat Coat” tea bags.
“Theater Camp” is hilarious and accessible, hitting the right notes in a specific niche while still appealing to mainstream audiences.
The mockumentary style allows for impeccable comedic timing, and “Theater Camp” sticks the landing. Part of this is because the campers are played by actual children, rather than adults in pigtails, which seems to have become the norm. This allows kids like Alan Kim, who plays a pint-sized agent character, to fully showcase their talent. Plus, kids are just funny.
At times, “Theater Camp” risks being too over-the-top – and this might be a deterrent for some. But, really, can you be mad at a drama camp movie for being too dramatic? Gordon, Platt, Galvin, and Lieberman took a darling short film about a theater camp and built it into a quick 90 minutes of witty humor, impressive performances, and sharp twists; what more could one ask for?
I might not have spent my childhood running lines or taking voice lessons, but I can appreciate all that is “Theater Camp.” If you grew up in theater, or you didn’t and just like to laugh, this one is worth the watch.