Saturday, November 17, 2012

THEATER: Performance Anxieties: Reviews of "The Performers" and "Barking Girl"

The Performers is about adult industry stars and their large endowments, but the Broadway stage must be cold or something, because these outsize-stars are shriveling up under the lights. (The fact that the show is closing on Sunday has little to do with it, though that may explain why both Alicia Silverstone and Ari Graynor appeared to be losing their voices.) Only Henry Winkler, as the still-in-the-game-legend Chuck Wood, manages to make the jokes more than cheap. When he bellows "They give me the front row because I need the room . . . for my cock!" or makes blatant puns about his penis, you're made to understand that his pride's the one thing he has left. His young rival, Mandrew (Cheyenne Jackson), while being interviewed by an old high-school friend, Lee (Daniel Breaker), only has room to showcase his insecurities; likewise with Mandrew's wife, Peeps (Ari Graynor), whose entrance is a long tirade about her tit size.

This is the thrust of the play (pun intended, and there's not a low blow this show doesn't take -- pun again, intended), and so as Peeps worries that her old friend (and girl-on-girl co-star) Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber) may be stealing Mandrew with her giant new knockers, Lee worries that his high-school sweetheart and fiancee Sara (Alicia Silverstone), who is meant to be an endearingly demure high-school math teacher, won't be happy with his lack of adventure, while she worries that, because he's literally a one-woman man, he won't be satisfied with her. Suffice it to say that they all come together (not literally, although the pun's still intended: do you get the groaning repetition yet?) in the cheesiest, shallowest, and most contrived of fashions. Peeps confides in Sara and suggests a Freaky Friday swap, Sara attempts to make Lee jealous by drunkenly falling all over Chuck Wood, Sundown LeMay offers Lee the Porn Star Experience (splits!), and none of this is farcical so much as sad, though adroitly performed by the majority of the cast.

There are genuine laughs in The Performers -- Mandrew attempting to prove his acting chops by reciting one of the monologues from Precious, for example, or Peeps's attempts to follow a teleprompter -- but very little else that doesn't feel plastic. The re-enactments of porn scenes (without any nudity) are awkward and unfunny (the plot of a blue film hardly needs to be spoofed, after all), the women are far too uniformly presented as dumb, and even Evan Cabnet's direction feels stilted, most notably during a cat-fight that breaks out during an awards ceremony. Consider, however, the way the play ends, with the moralizing line, "It's not your brain I want, it's your (pause) heart." This is meant to be a sweet surprise, but it's totally unearned. And while it may be a surprise that playwright David West Read at last avoids coming right out with the dick joke, it's only sweet in the sense (as Chuck Wood puts it) of a money shot that doesn't hit you in the eyes.

Susan Bernfield's Barking Girl, on the other hand, is a series of micro-scenes spanning the growth of Rae (Adina Taubman) over ten or so years, from her initial worry at what the child inside her may become (would it be like the out-of-control barking girl she sees at a museum?) to what the child itself eventually is: "You are so much like him. And so much like me." But the play is oddly devoid of action, and Pirronne Yousefzadeh's direction takes things a step further, in that the characters are almost always sitting down or standing still, as if they are locked within themselves. For Rae, this somewhat makes sense, but the result is that she's never allowed to change -- she's always tense, whether with her husband, Gil (Max Arnaud), sister Becca (Meg MacCary), or the Sexy Guy (Tom O'Keefe) who keeps flirting with her, only to be rebuffed by her sense of matriarchal responsibility.

Time flies, and it's hard to feel that we know these characters so much as the general ennui and dread that their scenarios represent: Rae worries that she's not the cool mother, gets frustrated at the projectile vomiting and the lack of a social life, doesn't know how to approach other mothers -- in fact, hates the term "mother" at all, in that it labels her. There are some fine musings, and serene, peaceful writing, but it really needs to be driven by more of a conflict or united by a tighter series of echoes. (The sparseness of the set may play a part in this: Two tin cans attached by a string are a great image, but they shouldn't be the only image.) As is, when Gil dies -- suddenly, and off-stage, with Rae alerted by phone -- it's hard to tell exactly what's happening. Neither of the two scenes addressing this take more than a minute or so (together), and such compression leaves the show with no room to breathe, let alone to scream or bark.

(One quick disclaimer: at the performance of Barking Girl that I attended, loud music from the accompanying space permeated the theater. This is problematic in of itself, but for a quiet and contemplative play like this, makes it difficult to focus. Subtleties may have been missed; emotions may have been muted. Having read through the script, I don't think it makes all that much of a difference, but it's certainly something that didn't help.)