Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Sleazy, Empty One Night Stand

Review:  The Performers

The Performers would be approximately 35.7% better if Cheyenne Jackson spent the entire show wearing this.

Complaining about the vulgarity in The Performers is akin to complaining the music at a rock concert is too loud.  The new comedy by David West Read is set in the world of the adult entertainment industry, so of course there’s going to be a large amount of graphic sex talk that doesn’t confine itself to proper anatomical terms.  But unlike in other, better plays, the vulgarity in The Performers doesn’t serve any higher purpose than mere shock value, and results in an evening that is both unfulfilling and forgettable.

Set in a Las Vegas hotel during the annual Adult Entertainment Awards, the play opens with porn star – or performer, to use his preferred title – Mandrew being interviewed by his high school friend Lee for a story in The New York Post.  Mandrew is married to fellow performer Peeps, who is experiencing an extreme fit of jealousy after learning he kissed scene partner Sundown LeMay (Peeps and Sundown are already in a fight over the cartoonishly large breast implants Sundown got without informing her supposed best friend Peeps).  Also in the mix are Mandrew’s older professional rival Chuck Wood and Lee’s mousy fiancée Sara, all of whom go through some sort of personal crisis that is neatly resolved by the end of the play’s short 90 minute runtime.

Read’s writing is high on dirty words but low on character development, which makes even the shortened length feel too long.  Read frequently resorts to sentimentality and clichéd observations about love and intimacy in an attempt to create audience sympathy for these walking punch lines, but it almost always falls flat.  The constant stream of obscenities and dick jokes does provide some laughter, although the frat boy sense of humor proves too lowbrow to be consistently entertaining.  To Read’s credit, there are some truly funny bits in the play’s second half, including a hilarious riff on the original Freaky Friday film and a perfectly executed callback to a previously established joke about the Where’s Waldo? book series.

The biggest laughs come courtesy of the play’s two best actresses, Ari Graynor and Jenni Barber as Peeps and Sundown, respectively.  Both women turn their insanely vapid characters into legitimate human beings, nailing the comedy while still demonstrating a convincing emotional underpinning to their shenanigans.  For all her non sequitur ramblings and incessant whining, Graynor’s Peeps emerges as the most sympathetic character of the bunch, made relatable by the emphasis on her desire for a loving marriage and job security.  Meanwhile, Barber manages the small miracle of not being overshadowed by her insanely large fake breasts (they really must be seen to be believed) and turns her limited dialogue into comedic gold.  Both actresses elevate their material to the next level, and the production noticeably suffers when neither is onstage.

As Mandrew and Chuck Wood, Cheyenne Jackson and Henry Winkler aren’t as compelling as their female costars, but both do respectable jobs with subpar material.  Jackson continues to be a reliable supporting player, making his Mandrew suitably dense yet lovable, but the actor still hasn’t found the breakout role he deserves.  (Note:  Those hoping for an eyeful of Jackson’s chiseled physique will be disappointed, because despite his revealing opening outfit the star spends the rest of the night fully clothed.)  Winkler, who isn’t in the show nearly as much as the promotional materials would have you believe, still seems somewhat uncomfortable with his character’s blue humor, but he does have a rather touching moment with Jackson that is surprisingly heartfelt for such an empty-headed production.

Unfortunately, Daniel Breaker and Alicia Silverstone aren’t up to snuff as engaged couple Lee and Sara.  Breaker has the unforgiving job of being the straight man, and seeing him flounder in the role reiterates just how hard that character type is to play.  Breaker also undercuts his effectiveness by mugging to the audience in inappropriate places, leaving his scenes feeling unbalanced and unfocused.  Meanwhile, Silverstone is a disaster for much of the show, displaying none of the charisma she’s usually known for.  She saves face thanks to a well-executed drunk scene towards the play’s climax, although it comes as too little, too late.

The costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay and sets by Anna Louizos are suitably tacky for a play with this subject matter, and the direction by Evan Cabnet is serviceable but uninspiring.  Ultimately, the piece feels like an Off-Broadway or regional production that somehow snuck onto a Broadway stage.  The script is well-intentioned but lacks sparks, and with the possible exception of Graynor and Barber none of the performances feel like they’re Broadway caliber.  Given the wealth of other options on tap for this season, The Performers just isn’t worth your time and money.

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