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Truth and laughs run deep in new mockumentary 'Theater Camp'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Summer camp season is upon us, and so is a comedy called "Theater Camp." The mockumentary was created by a couple of former campers who have made it in showbiz, Broadway's Tony winner Ben Platt and Molly Gordon of TV's "The Bear." Our critic Bob Mondello says he started laughing from the setup.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The documentary filmmakers have just turned on their cameras to record the opening day when camp founder Joan keels over from a strobe light effect - the first "Bye Bye Birdie"-related injury in the history of Passaic County, we're told, which means the fate of Camp AdirondACTS lies with Joan's son Troy, to whom she has somehow not passed on the theater gene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

JIMMY TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) What up, AdirondACTS? Listen up.

MONDELLO: Dozens of first-day campers don't hear him at all. Happily, camp counselor Amos is close enough to grab the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

BEN PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar, singing) Oh, what a beautiful...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Morning.

MONDELLO: That is how you quiet little kids who speak fluent "Wicked" and "Sweeney Todd." Though the founder's in a coma, the show must go on, and by show, I mean the original camp musical the counselors write for the kids each year. This year's is about their founder in a coma...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar) Welcome to the first rehearsal of "Joan, Still."

MONDELLO: ...Which they haven't started writing yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar) I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Emotionally, physically and spiritually, this is our most complicated piece we've ever tried to do, most ambitious. Now, we only have three weeks to create a masterpiece. It's on you now. It's up to you. So that's on your shoulders as well as Joan's well-being and her legacy - all on you.

MONDELLO: A sea of adolescent faces seeks reassurance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

MOLLY GORDON: (As Rebecca-Diane) But you so deserve it on every level. You guys are so talented, so unbelievable. This will break you. This will fully destroy you.

PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar) Congratulations on being the most talented kids at camp.

MONDELLO: Tough love for 10- to 14-year-olds who are described at one point as every kid who was ever picked last in gym. They're all fabulous overachievers on stage, as judged by the camp faculty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar) I do believe her as a French prostitute.

GORDON: (As Rebecca-Diane) Amos.

PLATT: (As Amos Klobuchar) Oh, I'm sorry - sex worker.

GORDON: (As Rebecca-Diane) Thank you.

MONDELLO: Other staffers include a cook who spikes the kids' baked beans with bourbon, an old-school dance instructor...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

NATHAN LEE GRAHAM: (As Clive DeWitt) Jiggle like a jackal. Jiggle like a jackal.

MONDELLO: ...A total novice...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

AYO EDEBIRI: (As Janet Walch) These are the things we can do with masks.

TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) These people are really weird.

MONDELLO: ...And a hyper-sensitive costume designer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

OWEN THIELE: (As Gigi Charbonier) Sad news. I will not be doing piercings anymore in the hut because there's a narc amongst us. Cassie has narced.

MONDELLO: Cassie is 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

THIELE: (As Gigi Carbonier) It's totally fine.

MONDELLO: All of this while Troy, played as a doofus business bro by Jimmy Tatro, avoids bill collectors and stumbles through meetings with Noah Galvin's tech guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) I'm just going to take understanding a word you're saying off my list and let you take it from here, brother.

NOAH GALVIN: (As Glenn Winthrop) OK.

TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) Quick question, though. What's a straight play?

GALVIN: (As Glenn Winthrop) Well, there are musicals, and then there are straight plays.

TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) So then what would be a gay play?

GALVIN: (As Glenn Winthrop) I guess a musical.

TATRO: (As Troy Rubinsky) Oh, cool.

MONDELLO: "Theater Camp" kind of has my name on it. It's designed for folks who will grin at dorms named Rodgers and Hammerstein and Kander and Ebb rather than Gryffindor and Slytherin, who'll chuckle at celebrating Meryl Day, as in Meryl Streep, and at this pep talk for 11-year-olds.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

GRAHAM: (As Clive DeWitt) You need to know that only 3% of people make it. The rest end up in a mental facility or on a go-go box in Hell's Kitchen.

MONDELLO: What's clear in performance is that these folks live this stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

GALVIN: (As Glenn Winthrop) We're theater people. We know how to turn cardboard into gold.

MONDELLO: The kids are already great little comedians. The adults are invested because, well, when there's footage of the camp counselors played by Ben Platt and Molly Gordon performing "Fiddler On The Roof" as children, it's really them as children. They've been friends forever and performed together forever. And while the events spiraling out of control in "Theater Camp" are crazy and over-the-top, for them, this mockumentary clearly has more than a little truth in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

EDEBIRI: (As Janet Walch) You think this is fun and games. It's not fun. It's art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

THELMA HOUSTON: (Singing) Baby...

MONDELLO: For the rest of us, it has more than a little laughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

HOUSTON: (Singing) My heart is full of love...

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LEAVE ME THIS WAY")

HOUSTON: (Singing) ...And desire for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.