Wet Hot American Summer is a quirky little film with a very big-name cast. When it came out in 2001, Amy Poehler wasn’t queen of Parks & Recreation, Bradley Cooper was fresh out of grad school and a decade away from his first Oscar nomination and Paul Rudd wouldn’t work with Judd Apatow until three years later.
The film takes place at a dysfunctional summer camp in Maine, where campers die meaninglessly, counselors get hooked on heroin on their trips into town, and pretty much everyone is having sex with each other — or at least talking about having sex with each other.
While there have certainly been plenty of screen-to-stage adaptations recently, Wet Hot American Summer isn’t an immediately obvious property to adapt to a small black box theater. Especially one as small as the 30-seater in Long Beach, where The Garage Theatre Attempts Wet Hot American Summer... The Play? opens Friday. How can you re-create the film's weird magic?
For writer-director Ryan McClary, it’s important to differentiate the show from the movie. “It’s like a really good cover song,” he explains. “We spend the first five minutes saying, ‘This is not the movie, this is our version of it, and we’re going to give you a crash course in it,’ and then it’s the audience’s turn to pick up and run with us.”
The stage version gets meta: The first act is about the actors who are putting on a stage version of the movie, and the second act is that stage version. McClary explains, “The second act is a much more streamlined, very theatrical, but still very silly, still hitting all the essential beats and little throughlines involving characters.”
But not everything could make it in, sadly. While he knew he’d have to cut someone’s favorite bit, he realized early on that he’d have to be merciless, and “just take a hatchet to it immediately, attack it like you would any other thing you were hired to adapt and given a blank check to do with, as long as the spirit of it was the same.” Fret not, though — the scene where Paul Rudd’s character reluctantly picks up his mess is still in there.
McClary feels like he’s bringing Wet Hot American Summer back to the way it was intended to be watched, in a group setting.
“In a way, it’s the perfect thing for theater," he says. He's aiming it at people who may have seen sketch shows at Upright Citizen's Brigade but haven't seen actual play. “It’ll give people who have never had an experience at the theater — or never had a good experience at the theater — it’ll give them that first one, so maybe then they’ll check out something that is more traditionally theater.”
Wet Hot American Summer's non-traditional nature makes it a perfect fit for the Garage Theatre. The company was founded in 2000 and a typical season includes a mix of edgy contemporary works, like Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, which is next up, and Darkside, a mash-up of Tom Stoppard and Pink Floyd, which will make its U.S. premiere this summer.
Producer Larry Indich says the mission of his theater is to challenge "the idea of theater, dressing up, almost this bougie experience," he says. "The idea of our theater is to not have that, to flip it — you can come in with shorts on, and you can bring your own beer, we don’t care.”
That laid-back attitude plays into why the show is called a "Play?"
“The thing is, is it a play?" McClary asks. "‘Cause I don’t know if I want to go see a 'play,’ but a 'play?’ I might go see. That’s why [the title] is even 'The Garage Theatre Attempts.’ As much as I think that’s a clever line, it’s also saying, 'I have no idea if this is going to work.'”
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