Worlds collide when Robbie throws a football-drama party and Tracy gets Jane Austen-ed.
The Mazzuchellis are off to Pittsburgh! Ms. Wolfe is off on a date! The Tigers are off to the…playing field? I don’t know.
It’s a week of big moves for the people of Rise, starting with the Stanton High football team, led by Robbie Thorne in a starring role as “Quarterback” against a supporting cast playing “Visiting Team.” All eyes are on Robbie for his first performance of the season, with the pressure compounded by the burden of Robbie’s former-athlete father, who’s more excited for game day than the star player. Mr. Thorne has already taken it upon himself to tempt fate by throwing a stacked victory party, and he won’t stop reminding Robbie about all the possible casting directors (“scouts”) in attendance.
Leading up to the game, Robbie doesn’t seem to be particularly fazed by anything — not the high expectations of the game, not the potential burn-out from extra Spring Awakening rehearsal, not even the juggling of his two romantic ingenue interests. He encourages Lilette to bring a friend to his victory party, and then upon receiving a warning from Simon about toying with her feelings, Robbie immediately breaks things off with the cheerleader he’s been seeing and tells Lilette to come to the party alone. It’s a clean break for a teen love triangle, handled with more efficiency than a Kelli O’Hara quick change, and certainly tells a much swifter story than Lilette’s agonizing back-and-forth these past two weeks over every signal of Robbie’s.
When the game rolls around, the highlight is the national anthem (sung by Simon and Lilette, who has apparently stolen another role from the historically best singer at school) while the lowlight is the losing game itself. I cannot say with certainty that the Tigers’ loss was entirely Robbie’s fault, but to put it into some context, I’m sure if you saw a production of Les Miz with a tone-deaf Cosette you would probably also find a reason why you didn’t love the Valjean.
The not-so-victory party is the big story here, though, and there’s just so much to unpack at this lightly-catered, DiGiorno-sponsored affair. The party begins as something of a bust, when it’s only Robbie, the team, and the exceptionally low spirits of teen boys spurned. Just when Robbie finally rallies the enthusiasm back up, it screeches to a halt when his theater pals Michael and Maashous arrive (while it’s still light outside, no less). They’re followed shortly thereafter by all of the other theater kids whom big-mouth Barb from Stranger Things has improperly invited, effectively and immediately turning this football fete into a Cabaret-ger.
PSA: Parties with theater people are weird. They involve far more vibrato and references to obscure solo lines from Legally Blonde: The Musical than most other normal social gatherings. On the flip side, parties involving football players always tend to look like the kind of sloppy straight-couple solo-cup celebrations that you see on MTV and in Popular American High School Movies. Combined, the two events do not mesh well, instead devolving into a discordant mess of two separate parties split between people who want to do kegstands and people who just want to sing “Colors of the Wind” in the round.
Through all of this, Robbie is more embarrassed than anything else. Lilette has arrived and the two of them have engaged in some promising hand-holding, but it doesn’t reach its climax because the football and theater worlds suddenly clash past the point of no return. A line is drawn in the sand when the athletes begin to harass Michael about being transgender. Maashous goes over to help, the situation escalates, and it culminates in Robbie standing up to his team for his friend and, by proxy, the whole Spring Awakening crowd in general: “I invited them, and his name is Michael.”
Robbie then calls off the party and snaps at Lilette, angry at himself for the price he’ll soon pay for scolding the team and siding with the drama club. (He also doesn’t know that, sometime during the night, his father also discouraged Lilette from getting between him and the game.) It’s not until later, when he was washing the blood off his hands cups off his table that he comes across Lilette’s erstwhile container. Suddenly, he recalibrates his focus and remembers he was supposed to declare his like to her tonight; he goes to her house, texts her to come outside, and the two finally share their first kiss.
And then, on the complete opposite end of people going outside to greet their loved ones, there’s Gordy.
We are all Gordy, stuck in the car as the Mazzuchellis drive to Pittsburgh to see Gail’s sister and catch a 7-year-old’s local production of Cats. Gordy is extremely pissedoffelees that he has to attend the family trip, no longer allowed to stay at home because of his liquid liability. The visit is not exactly a delight for Mr. Mazzu, either, who seems to revisit a consistent feeling of failure when he compares his life to that of Gail’s upper-class lesbian sister and her HGTV-ready home. (Meanwhile, the trip seems to be for real Mazzus only; Maashous, like Raul Esparza’s Tony, is nowhere to be found.)
Because both Mazzuchelli men are evidently disgusted by Pittsburgh, the two share a rare moment of joy together, resulting in Gordy drumming up the courage to ask permission to skip Cats — and Mr. Mazzu granting it. Big mistake. Huge. While Mr. Mazzu is busy examining the school’s fancy lighting equipment and bluntly asking Gail’s sister to donate to Stanton Drama (spoiler: she doesn’t), Gordy sneaks back home to Robbie’s victory celebration, where he once again drinks recklessly and engages in his one-scene-per-week trend of lighting Gwen’s piazza.
When the Mazzus do finally realize that Gordy has fled, they race home and find him at the party — and the scene outside the Thornes’ house is, I will say, Josh Radnor’s best moment on Rise thus far. Once Gordy and Lou’s tension turned frighteningly physical, something finally clicked for me about Lou’s relationship to the theater department. No, I do not like this man, but perhaps this whole thing is not so much about Mr. Mazzu’s desperate attempt to force-feed a vision as it is about his finding theatre as the only place where he can control his surroundings. He can’t give his wife the house she deserves. He can’t give his son the father he needs. But can he be the director a cast loves? The mentor a student didn’t realize they were missing? Can he give the drama department its boldest, most memorable, most unforgettable show? Yes, he has been stubborn and paranoid and indefensibly rude in his quest to get here, and none of that is forgivable, but at the very least, the Gordy storyline is starting to put Mr. Mazzu’s conviction-slash-obsession into perspective. He’s trying to enact change onstage because he can’t do it anywhere else. Stanton Drama is the only place where people listen to him (yes, because he bulldozes over them to make sure they do, but still). I’m still quite cold on Mr. Mazzu, as any rational viewer would be, but even I can’t begrudge someone for finding theatre as a singular escape from the uglier parts of life.
The other major discussion point this week involves a strange, surprising, Shakespearean-Rostandian romantic subplot that comes out of left field for Ms. Wolfe. It originates, as many things do, from Mr. Mazzu and Gail’s shared derision that Ms. Wolfe is “very single,” a conclusion they’ve determined from her constant texts to Lou about the show. To the Mazzuchellis, the communication is desperate, but of course, we know that Ms. Wolfe is merely trying to exhibit some care and love and keep Spring Awakening’s production budget in the realm of possibility and not a drama-club fantasy in the Gay Upside-Down.
Cut to: The light board blows out during rehearsal (because of Mr. Mazzu, of course, who now has a physical manifestation of his refusal to listen to anyone), and an eligible biology teacher named Andy pops up to help Mazzu and Tracy fix it. “Maybe you can toss this on another bonfire,” snarks the teacher. It should read as a dig, but when Tracy leaves to go teach sex ed (who knew!), Andy confides in Mr. Mazzu that he actually finds Tracy’s brazenness quite attractive. Suddenly, Mr. Mazzu is fully Jane Austening as he pulls various puppet strings to get Tracy and Andy to go out.
After an initial rebuff, Tracy agrees to go to dinner with Andy, at which the man accidentally reveals what most people think of her (fun concepts like “loudmouth” and “wet blanket” and “Drama Desk ineligible”). Andy errs further and admits that Mr. Mazzu encouraged him to ask her out, a discovery that sets Tracy ablaze and results in the best use of a theatrical phone call since “Voice Mail #5.”
Fortunately, Andy is actually a good guy with a genuine interest in Tracy. He talks her down, calling her “luminous” (bringing the whole lighting theme of the episode full circle) and explaining that he knew he liked her after seeing how positively one of his students reacted after helping her with a production of School of Rock. He walks her home. He kisses her goodnight. And while I am very happy for this budding if unexpected relationship, I do have to just sit here silently for a week and curiously wonder: In what possible world did Stanton Drama do School of Rock!?!?!?