Just what is it about Katherine Matilda Swinton, better known to the masses as Tilda Swinton? The visually striking, Oscar-winning actor has often been described as “captivating”, “other-wordy”, “offbeat”, “enigmatic”, “ethereal”, and much more. Many people truly believe she must be an alien, because, well… how could she be real?! As a performer, Swinton is clearly in a league of her own. The star’s personal life is equally as fascinating: She chooses the Scottish highlands rather than Hollywood as her home, and owns some truly renegade views on many worldly subjects . Swinton’s support for LGBTQ rights and her androgynous sensibilities have made her a truly unique gay icon, as have her choices of film projects. Many gay men who are old enough to remember actually having to go to the theater to see independent films will never forget her gender-bending role in the cinematic gem Orlando in 1992. Byron Lane’s campy comedy Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist, now playing at New York City’s Laurie Beechman Theatre after a successful run in Los Angeles, is a lovingly exaggerated nod to the star’s idiosyncratic persona, starting with its titillating title. But, first and foremost, it’s damn funny.
The first character we meet in Lane’s smart farce is Walt, played by Lane himself. To put it one simply, Walt hasn’t been having a good day. He feels isolated and unfulfilled with life. His hunky but vain boyfriend Bobby (Mark Jude Sullivan) has dumped him. The final insult is when our pickle-hating underdog gets his delivery from the local hamburger joint… and, sadly, his burger is covered in pickles. Oh, the tragedy! But just when Walt has reached the point of killing himself with an overdose of Propecia, he gets an unexpected visitor. That visitor is (
drum roll harp chord, please…) “Tilda Swinton”, played by Tom Lenk.
Yes, it’s true. Swinton, the actress aptly described by one character as “blonde and beautiful and weird-looking at the same time”, has answered the play’s titular “Roommate Wanted” ad on Craigslist… or, in Tilda-speak, “an ad on the List of Craig”. Of course, the larger-than-life star’s entrance is every bit as grand and theatrical as the audience would expect . In no less than diva-esque style, Lenk-as-Tilda discards a cloak made from bubble wrap (!) to display a blindingly white ensemble, with platinum hair to match. Even Lenk’s skin looks blonde. That said, pure white has never looked more… well, colorful! As the seemingly supernatural celebrity snaps her fingers to control the lighting and moves like she’s floating six inches above the stage floor, she speaks endlessly (and hilariously) about her favorite subject: herself. Throughout the play, the audience learns– among other “Tilda” trivia– that the star’s children weren’t born but rather “cold pressed from a collection of moon rods”, and that Tilda actually appeared in such hits as The Matrix (“I played Keanu Reeves.”) and Death Becomes Her (“I was the entire cast!”) Of course, Ms. Swinton is the consummate professional actor– so, every uniquely accented word emanating from her mouth seems intensely studied, rehearsed, and script-revised (although she’s not above occasionally dropping the “F” bomb…). This star can’t even blink her eyes without making it an Oscar-baiting movement, camera rolling or not.
Tilda sees her depressed new roommate as a creative opportunity for a character study: She wants to play Walt in a filmed version of his life. As Lenk’s Tilda and Lane’s Walt camp it up in what seems to be a budding sitcom-style dom-and-sub relationship (No mystery as to which one is which…) , the audience is treated to three visitors to the apartment. The first is Walt’s selfie-obsessed and somewhat cruel ex Bobby. The second is his harmless but still irritating mother Janet (Jayne Entwistle). The third is his cold, business-obsessed father Herman (also played by Sullivan). With characters like these in Walt’s life, is it any mystery why this young man is so depressed? Luckily, Walt finds an unlikely Not-Of-This-Earth Mother figure and muse in Ms. Swinton: He soon sees Tilda as an inspiration for taking back control of his life. Before you ask, Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad On Craigslist does have a happy ending of sorts. But to be honest, the audience was probably too drunk on laughter by the end of the play to notice.
Most of those laughs come from Tom Lenk’s over-the-top portrayal of Swinton. Lane’s script gives Lenk a seemingly infinite number of hilarious one-liners and quick-witted responses. A gifted comedian, Lenk elicits laughs even when his Tilda isn’t saying a word, which is not too often. In a rare moment when Walt counters Tilda’s dominance with the crack, “You’re not flawless… We saw ‘The Beach’!”, the look on “Tilda’s” face is worth the price of the food and drink minimum at the Laurie Beechman Theatre alone. True to the Swinton mystique of androgyny, we don’t even think about whether the actor playing “Tilda” is male or female; Tom Lenk’s performance truly defies gender. In multiple roles, Jayne Entwistle and Mark Jude Sullivan are equally masterful at comedy in their supporting roles. Playing double duty as playwright and actor, Byron Lane mostly plays second banana to Lenk’s Tilda, but his sad sack character emerges with the audience’s sympathy. Throughout the show, I was constantly looking around the theater to see if the REAL Tilda Swinton was actually in attendance; With her chameleon-like reputation, she may very well have been there, incognito… Given the actor’s reportedly quirky sense of humor (This is an celeb whose e-mail reportedly sends the auto-reply: “Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message.”), I have no doubt that Swinton herself would be laughing the loudest at this comedic gem.
Tilda Swinton Answers An Ad on Craigslist, directed by Tom Detrinis, runs March 16 -25, Thursdays through Sundays at 7PM at The Laurie Beechman Theatre inside West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42nd Street, New York City. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.SpinCycleNYC.com.