How do you reconcile the jazzy 1940s-50s musical revue “Five Guys Named Moe” with a futuristic play about America’s first gay president enduring a zombie apocalypse?
“There is no reconciliation,” says Robert O’Hara, director of “Five Guys,” now at Arena Stage, and the author of “Zombie: The American,” premiering at Woolly Mammoth Theatre next spring. “It’s Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth. They cannot be any more different, which is fantastic.”
O’Hara, 44, is known as a playwright with a wild streak. (He also is a stage director.) His breakthrough script, “Insurrection: Holding History,” was a time- fantasy that zapped a modern grad student — black and gay — to the antebellum South and into an affair with a slave. O’Hara’s racy “Bootycandy” was a string of vignettes about love and lust; it premiered at Woolly in 2011 and just finished a run at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan.
“Smutty and, on the whole, enticingly subversive,” Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote in his review.
“Five Guys Named Moe,” which Arena is producing with the Cleveland Playhouse, is the first full musical O’Hara has been asked to direct. The show was a hit in London before opening on Broadway in 1992. It’s an upbeat collection of jump and jive songs (“Caldonia,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”) associated with sax man/bandleader Louis Jordan.
O’Hara’s updated approach has transformed the five singing Moes into a contemporary boy band. The vibe he’s after is Vegas, Beyoncé, Jay Z.
“I’m not interested in it sounding like we’re sitting in the 1940s listening to Louis Jordan, because we’re not,” O’Hara says before a recent rehearsal at Arena. “I’m not interested in directing a museum piece.”
He seems intuitively drawn to history-warping hybrids. His “Antebellum” at Woolly was a mashup of Nazis and “Gone With the Wind.” “Insurrection: Holding History” was billed as “Roots” meets “The Wizard of Oz,” and its gay romance in a slave context shocked some viewers.
“People were like, ‘How can you put those things together?’ ” O’Hara says. “Well, there were homosexuals and there was slavery, and they existed on Earth at the same time. They expect to see a slave play or a gay play, but not both in the same play.”
O’Hara describes “Zombie” as a Jacobean “Dr. Strangelove.” The plot features African peacekeepers in a United States on the brink of civil war.
“It’s Woolly Mammoth, so it’s not like I’m trying to make everyone comfortable at all,” O’Hara says of the play, which Woolly commissioned. “And it’s written by me. If you know anything about me, I don’t believe in comfort.”
Even so, O’Hara appreciates the gear-shift of “Five Guys.”
“I don’t have to be this sort of political madman,” he explains of the song-and-dance escape. “Every piece of theater doesn’t have to take you by the collar and shake you. Something can be complete and total enjoyment.”
O’Hara keeps busy as a director and has even written and directed a horror film (“The Inheritance”), but he notes that while white directors are often hired to work on new plays by black playwrights, the reverse is seldom true. (“This is why I think people don’t like me to be on panels,” he deadpans.) Meantime, the fall got off to a good start as “Bootycandy” enjoyed its post-Woolly life.
“A lot of love was given to it,” O’Hara says. “Some people, of course, walked out. But you came to a play called ‘Bootycandy.’ What did you expect — ‘Five Guys Named Moe’?”
Friday-Dec. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org. $50-$127.