Theater archives

The People Choice


In the New York theater, between the crud-mongers who talk down to it, and the culture snobs who yap over its heads, the audience is the one party that rarely gets a voice in the debates. The vagueness of its platform is partly to blame: If the policies it loves aren’t accessible, it will seize on those it likes most—or dislikes least—of the proposals currently on offer. If Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers are out of the running, it will pool its votes, temporarily, to support an Andrew Lloyd Webber, while perhaps showing more respect for an alternative candidate, urged by its pundits, of the Sondheim sort. Observers of its shifting enthusiasms naturally conclude that such a party is not to be trusted, but in fact, it always knows what it wants; it’s just politically savvy enough to settle for what it can get. It will be cautiously sympathetic toward Kander and Ebb—too Sondheimish in certain ways to be truly haimish—and respectfully suspicious of post-Sondheim wisenheimers like LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. But whatever experiments are tried or challenges offered, all this party really wants is to enjoy itself at the theater. Its policy doesn’t exclude feeling or meaning; it’s never rigid about convention, and rarely resentful of innovation. Just give it a good time, and watch what happens.

The Full Monty is likely to be this party’s candidate of choice for some time, a fact about which I have some reservations but no complaints. After all, there are only two main points about a candidate: the value of its promises and the honesty with which those promises are carried out. On both counts, The Full Monty gets my vote. Its small failings are the product of honest effort by everyone involved to do their best; its much bigger and more frequent successes come from the impulse to give pleasure simply and sincerely, without pandering, pretension, hidden agendas, or mind games. Its way of doing this, rare on Broadway these days, is to tell a simple story about interesting people, on the assumption that what they are and do will interest audiences. The show’s characters are not nonhuman, superhuman, conceptual, archetypal, or prototypical; they’re people.

Comparisons with other recent musicals based on movies, like Footloose and Saturday Night Fever, are misleading. Those were already musicals, and what was being sold to theater audiences was the cheap chrome glamour left over from the films, shoved onstage with minimal concern for adaptation. Moved not only from screen to stage, but from nonmusical to musical and from Sheffield, in England’s industrial north, to Buffalo, The Full Monty‘s story, of unemployed steelworkers who put on an amateur male strip show to make bucks, had to be totally reconceived. The situations are all the same—Terrence McNally’s script finds cunning use for many lines from the screenplay—but the cultural tonalities, you might say, are all different.

One of the big differences involves attitudes toward gayness. The film’s uninflected live-and-let-live has been replaced by McNally with a sly framework involving the hero’s confrontation with a professional male stripper, openly gay, whose response to abuse is a left to the jaw. Picking himself up from the floor, Jerry, the hero, starts what amounts to a slow redefinition of his concept of manliness. By the time two of his motley troupe have become lovers—McNally wittily lets us know they’re gay before they know it themselves—Jerry’s defending them. The motif enriches the story: Jerry’s employment problem, one sees, is also partly his macho problem: the boyish desire to play the big man, to be in charge. Already eroded by his failed marriage and joblessness, his ego almost doesn’t let him bounce back through the camaraderie of his gender-reversed project.

Each of Jerry’s companions has a contrasting hassle: Overweight Dave is letting his sense of inadequacy poison an otherwise happy marriage; Noah is an aging black man in a world where young white males get priority; repressed, suicidal Malcolm is trapped nursing an invalid mother; Ethan escapes into old movies, self-destructively mimicking their stunts; Jerry’s former boss, Harold, hides his out-of-work status from the innocently spendaholic wife he adores. The women in their lives, though not so well characterized—the show’s about the guys—have tensions and complexities of their own. Unusual in having so many individualized characters, the musical crisscrosses their stories, densely, at a steady but unhurried pace. McNally’s sauciest invention is the would-be strippers’ accompanist, a smart-mouthed retiree whose wisecracks are crisped to a sizzle by Kathleen Freeman’s hilariously dour performance.

David Yazbek’s lyrics share McNally’s sauce as well as his precision, adeptly building bits of the screenplay into numbers that move the action, deepen the characters, and heighten the show’s generally cheerful spirits. Where he falls down is in the music, workably welding Broadway and pop conventions, but rarely breaking through to any distinctive sound or melody of its own. (He gets closest in Jerry’s ballad to his sleeping son, “Breeze off the River.”) How badly this hurts depends on your length of perspective. The music of The Full Monty may be a speck on the Broadway record of the last 70 years; among scores of the last decade, it’s almost a peak.

Besides, the evening offers too many other gifts to complain, like Jerry Mitchell’s brash, funky choreography and John Arnone’s sets (industrial debris meets Day-Glo). Even when McNally’s script starts to unravel, as it does slightly in Act II, director Jack O’Brien’s cast keeps bringing wonder to it: Freeman, Andre de Shields (Noah), and John Ellison Conley (Dave) are the standouts, but you’re also offered Annie Golden, Lisa Datz, Marcus Neville, Emily Skinner, Jason Danieley, Romain Frugé, and, as Jerry, Patrick Wilson, whose onstage mood is visibly improved by playing a human being in a musical people might actually want to see.

In contrast, pity poor Daniel Levans, who’s on his fourth try at turning Edward Gorey’s gnomic, dryly droll works into a musical, and still hasn’t gotten it right. Like its Off-Off predecessor Amphigorey, The Gorey Details aims to “sell” Gorey to the uninitiated, punching the jokes, camping the melodramatics, and using an arch physical style that semaphores cutesy weirdness. You know what you’re in for the minute the actors start putting their hands on their heads in the opening number.

This is unjust to Gorey, barely cold in his grave; the central joke of all his works is their deadpan ambiguity. If things like the rampage of murders in “The Blue Aspic” and the sacrifice of a little girl to giant mantises in “The Insect God” don’t scare and bother you while making you laugh, the effect is incomplete. Levans catches the tone in the first of these pieces, and in a few others, but too often he pushes, distrusting both his audience and Gorey. And the pushing’s gotten worse since Amphigorey, which was played with a generally lighter touch. Kevin McDermott, the evening’s narrator, wasn’t nearly as overbearing as he is here. The new score, by Peter Matz, has unpushy charm; Clare Stollak has a sumptuous singing voice, and Daniel C. Levine, alone of the cast, catches the Gorey quality. Less would be more.

Nothing, though, could be less than The Unexpected Man, an evasion of dramatic responsibility that would amount to consumer fraud if you didn’t get to see two English stars, one of them, Eileen Atkins, a great artist who nearly manages to fascinate even here, with nobody to talk to and nothing of note to say. Alan Bates, opposite her, shows off his rhetorical gift rather than inhabiting the role. But what role? Bundles of cultural name-droppings who don’t address each other till the end, the script’s anonymous figures haven’t even got a conceptual existence to play out. Actors with a sense of their obligation to the public—a category in which I used to count both Bates and Atkins—would have said, “Piffle!” and tossed this nonplay away.

Its equally nonexistent antithesis might be A Place at the Table, which makes an immense fuss over even less: In a TV production office, a paraplegic playwright and a socially conscious sitcom producer lock horns over who has more moral integrity. Compressed to 10 minutes, it might have made a great SCTV sketch. That anyone would voluntarily produce it leaves me less appalled than dumbfounded.