Wannabe comics on a caper in ‘Finding Neil Patrick Harris’ at Nu Sass

Two bickering nail salon workers decide to grant a client his dying wish.

The playwright and screenwriter Donna Hoke has been exceptionally transparent about her inspiration and process for writing Finding Neil Patrick Harris, her quirky comedy just opened at Caos on F presented by Nu Sass Productions. Hoke began the work during COVID lockdown, she says, starting with (a) a theater critic’s weird personal joke and (b) two comic actresses wanting her to write a play for them. She amalgamated (a) and (b), composed a new scene a week, posted each in sequence on her blog, and some 17 scenes later had a first draft.

Which may explain the cobbled-together quality of a script whose setup is legit hokey: Two bickering women who work in a spa are giving a mani and a pedi to a man, a regular customer, who out of the blue lets them know that when he dies he wants his ashes flung at his dream crush, Neil Patrick Harris. (That theater critic, what a card.) The man then drops dead on the spot. The unnerved nail techs decide to take it upon themselves to grant their dearly departed client his dying wish (because of course), and in the wacky process of doing so, they form an improbable bond and quit bickering.

Selena Gill as Cha-Cha, Joshua Aaron Poole as Lucio, and Aubri O’Connor as Katie in ‘Finding Neil Patrick Harris.’ Photo by Kayode Kendall.

The play begins in a nail salon (featuring two oversize pink chairs and footbaths for customers, shelves full of multicolored polish on offer, and a sign advertising services at prices escalating from “Essential” to “Lavish” to “Bliss”). Attempting to one-up each other in funniness are co-workers Cha-Cha (Selena Gill playing wired spitfire) and Katie (Aubri O’Connor playing strained yearning to be liked). Petty squabbling is their shtick, and it persists as they treat the feet and fingers of Lucio (Joshua Aaron Poole playing wry and low-key counterpoint).

Once Lucio dies (gesticulating in grotesque death throes unnoticed by the two women, who are off in a corner chatting), Cha-Cha and Katie’s plan to find NPH is hatched (think a cockamamie Lucy-and-Ethel caper that the network would have nixed). Their first stop, in order to obtain Lucio’s ashes, is the home of Lucio’s sister, Lucy, played by Poole in a headwrap and garish housedress with an aura of Leslie Jordan. As the story takes Cha-Cha and Katie to New York City, Poole also has silly turns as a rest stop worker and man on the street.

A content warning in the program advises there will be dust, and indeed in several cartoonish scenes, plumes of prop cremains fill the air. Folks in the front row would be well advised to keep their facemasks on.

Aubri O’Connor as Katie, Selena Gill as Cha-Cha, and Joshua Aaron Poole as Lucky, a man on the street, in ‘Finding Neil Patrick Harris.’ Photo by Kayode Kendall.

Between scenes are monologues, which are framed as mini standup routines (Gill is particularly effective in engaging with the audience). These bits don’t so much advance the story as showcase the two sparring nail techs’ competitiveness in comedy — plus they cover for set shifts, which in this tiny Caos stage space can be arduous. (Director Bess Kaye has met this challenge as well as could be done.)

A motif of Cha-Cha and Katie’s interactions is a riff on what’s funny and what’s not. “Truth plus pain. Funny,” explains Cha-Cha, who presents herself as the more accomplished comedy writer, with multiple sitcom pilots. “People love funny people,” says Katie, which pretty much sums up the hapless stakes for her — she has but a single TV comedy idea. Their running disquisition on wit doesn’t actually play as funny as the playwright probably intended, but it does serve as a touching entry into who these women wish they were.

Nu Sass Productions’ estimable mission says in part that it “strives to encourage marginalized genders in all aspects of theater, especially in those roles traditionally dominated by cisgender men.” Now entering its 14th year, the company has selected Finding Neil Patrick Harris to kick off a repertory season that will include two other plays — Open by Crystal Skillman and Oreo Complex by Lillian Brown. I’ve seen the company do excellent and interesting work in the past, so while I recognize the earnest effort that has gone into the present production, I look forward to the Nu Sass shows coming next.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Finding Neil Patrick Harris plays through June 9, 2023, in rep with Open (April 28 to May 27) and Oreo Complex (May 20 to June 2) presented by Nu Sass Productions performing at Caos on F, 923 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets, which may be purchased online, are $30, general admission; $60, Date Night (2 tickets + 2 drinks + 2 snacks); $10, industry/students/essential workers/military; and Pay What You Will, all performances, anyone. Seating is limited to 30 audience members per performance.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required. Select mask-required performances will be scheduled.

Finding Neil Patrick Harris
Written by Donna Hoke
Directed by Bess Kaye

Stage Manager: Sophia Menconi
Producers: Aubri O’Connor and Ileana Blustein

Starring: Aubri O’Connor (Katie), Selena Gill (Cha-Cha), and Joshua Aaron Poole (Lucio, et. al)
Understudies: Rachel Brightbill (Katie), Jillian Riti (Cha-Cha), and Justin Meyer (Lucio, et. al)

Set: Aubri O’Connor and Ileana Blustein
Lights: Hailey LaRoe
Sound: Miki Bear
Costumes: Aubri O’Connor and Ileana Blustein
Props: Aubri O’Connor and Ileana Blustein
Marketing Designs: Miki Bear
Social Media: Laolu Fayese
House Manager: Allison McAlister

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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