Will "Nobody Loves You," the delightful little reality-TV musical satire, turn out to be a durable zeitgeist bonanza? (Think "Grease.") Or is the chamber musical about a dating show so true to our bizarre cultural moment that future audiences will sneer at its sell-by date?
At the very least, for now, the rom-com musical and reality-TV parody is a bright, clued-in, quick-witted amusement about a target that, granted, seems far too big and easy to mock.
But mocked it is, thanks to the sly book and lyrics by Itamar Moses, the music and lyrics by Gaby Alter and a knowing cast directed with just the right appreciation of the absurd by Michelle Tattenbaum. Although many of the songs are bubble gum pop, it is excellent bubble gum that only gets sticky when the tight construction unwinds toward the end and sentimentality creeps in.
The opening doesn't bode well either. We meet a couple we cannot believe ever got together. Jeff (played with amusing prickliness by Bryan Fenkart) is a philosophy grad student with disdain for the slimy hookup show that his incomprehensibly stupid girlfriend loves. Through a convoluted series of miscommunications, he auditions for next season to win her back.
Once we are rid of her and on the set, the layers upon layers of reality versus perception are piled on with almost architectural aplomb. At the center is Heath Calvert in a blissfully unctuous portrayal of the self-loving moron of a host in a sharkskin suit. (The perfectly observed costumes are by Jessica Pabst.) At least as irresistible is Rory O'Malley as an obsessed fan, a gay nerd who tweets the show's banalities as "hashtag so exciting."
Meanwhile, Jeff meets Megan (Lauren Molina), an assistant on the show who has a degree from NYU's film school. They bond over their contempt for everything. Fellow contestants include a Christian named Christian (Roe Hartrampf), the party girl (Aleque Reid) and the needy girl-woman (Autumn Hurlbert).
Mark Wendland's ingeniously compressed set, with the TV studio framed in shocking pink, neatly takes us from living rooms to the hot-tub room. The series' ruthless director (Leslie Kritzer) says viewers like Jeff's camera-ready alienation because he is "incredibly real." For 90 minutes on a hot summer night, the contradictions feel refreshing.
WHAT "Nobody Loves You"
WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.
INFO $80; 212-246-4422, 2st.com
BOTTOM LINE Reality TV made mockingly smart