Can’t Tease Everybody

24. November, 2010 Theater No comments

I rarely miss a show at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, because I’ve always liked the company’s fast and loose energy and its knack for finding outrageously funny new comedies. And from the name alone, The Play About the Naked Guy looked to be one of them. I’ve enjoyed several of the cast members in other things, and have been impressed with some of the shows director Evren Odcikin has helmed lately at Brava and Boxcar.

Adrian Anchondo, Jai Sahai and Timitio Artusio in The Play About the Naked Guy. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I say all this because hooboy, I just do not get The Play About the Naked Guy. The comedy is played very, very broadly in Odcikin’s staging, but the comic timing is slack and a lot of the jokes just aren’t that funny. Each of the performances in Impact’s West Coast premiere production is amusing in its own right, but somehow they never quite come together, and the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts.

David Bell
’s 2008 off-off-Broadway comedy about off-off-Broadway theater is clearly targeted toward an audience of off-off-Broadway theater people. It comes off as so much of an in-joke that you get the sense that you’d get a lot more out of it if you knew not just the type of person but the specific guy who’s being spoofed.

An intentionally overwrought opening sequence shows us a faux-Shakespearean starving artist and his pregnant wife begging in rhymed couplets for a penny from a sneering toff in an ill-fitting tuxedo and top hat. That’s our introduction to the Integrity Players, cash-strapped purveyors of impenetrable, boring theater that no one wants to see. The company’s never made any money and doesn’t attract audiences, so the only members left are self-important, dogmatically uncommercial artistic director Dan; his naive, optimistic wife Amanda; and rumpled Ivy League actor Harold, who earnestly does it all for the art. They start all their company meetings with the slogan, “Ars gratia artis,” and pass a Yorick skull around to whoever wants to speak.

Their sole funder is Amanda’s mother, Mrs. Anderson, who can’t stand Dan, is happy to see him fail, and just wants to shut the company down and lure her daughter back home to Westport, CT, especially now that Amanda is pregnant.

When the deeply closeted Harold wanders into a gay strip club, he runs into crass commercial sexploitation theater impresario Eddie Rossini and his two himbo sidekicks, T. Scott and Edonis, who latch onto him like the Fox and the Cat to Pinocchio. Eddie has no problem making money with shows like Naked Boys Running Around Naked and Drunk Frat Boys Making Porn, but the Integrity Players have a lease on a theater space and he doesn’t.

After luring Harold with the muscular, tattooed charms of stripper and gay porn star Kit Swagger, Eddie and his retinue invade the Integrity Players, and next thing you know everyone has become swept up enough by the prospect of actually making money that they vote the newcomers into the company. That is, everyone except Dan, who goes off in a huff while the others get ready for a homoerotic version of The Passion of the Christ–or rather I guess I should say an even more homoerotic version.

Jai Sahai has a fine earnestness as the shy, unkempt Harold, and Brian McManus keeps up a petulant intensity as Dan, with a clenched jaw and fretful stare. Eliza Leoni’s wide-eyed girl-next-door routine is charming as Amanda, especially in her cutesy baby talk with Dan. (She’s rarely called by name, because she and Dan call each other Pretty and Daddy.) Monica Cappuccini’s Mrs. Anderson is one part Kitty from Arrested Development and one part Cruella de Vil, a rich pantsuited snob with a maniacal villain laugh and a posh British accent.

John Ferreira’s Eddie is characterized by a contemptuous glower even when he’s sweet-talking someone. Eddie is given to elaborately contrived exclamations like “Jesus Timberlake Christ,” “heavens to Oprah,” and “sweet Hillary for president!” He also has a tendency toward Yodalike sentence fragments that just hang there: “Introduce myself may I be? Yes, I’ll take that as.” It’s hard to tell whether his garbled syntax is supposed to be a joke, because nothing’s really done with it to make it funny. Other people also talk that way sometimes, as when Dan says, “We had still hope,” so it may just be the way Bell writes, or it may even be flubbed lines.  Whatever it is, it doesn’t work.

Steven Satyricon is effectively abrasive as the brusque, openly hostile hunk Kit, who has no interest in acting and is only doing it for the money. Adrian Anchondo and Timitio Artusio strike entertaining poses as T. Scott and Edonis, the prancing, dim-witted, bitchy club boys who gleefully squeal things like, “Let’s go make him cry!” The fact that they don’t know anything about anything is played for humor, naturally enough, but they don’t stand out too much in that regard because everyone in the play is pretty dim.

Impact’s pizza-parlor basement black box done up as a dance club, which doesn’t make much doing, just some revolving colored lights and loud dance music (including Britney, Kylie, Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga), and cast members do saucy dances between scenes. Miyuki Bierlein whips up some delightfully flashy outfits, especially for the play within a play.

There are definitely some funny bits, as when Kit is arguing on the phone with his manager, who’s pressuring him to be a bottom in a porn video, and signs off with “I love you, Mom.” The climactic gyrating crucifixion dance is pretty priceless as well. It’s just that it’s all pretty hit-or-miss.

And then there’s the naked guy. It seems like there’s a lot of teasing about when or whether we’re going to see this guy’s junk, but not in a way that particularly builds anticipation. Granted, straight guys may not be the target market, but it’s not like there’s dearth of male nudity in local theater in the last few years, so it’s hard to get worked up about it one way or another. (By the end of 2008 in particular, I was about ready to write a Year in Review piece called “My Year of Dicks.”) Despite the title, The Play About the Naked Guy is actually fairly demure as naked guys go. You may find that disappointing, you may think it’s just about right, or you may not care about it one way or another–much like the play, when it comes right down to it.

The Play About the Naked Guy
Through December 18
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid St.
Berkeley, CA

(Updated 11/27/10 to reflect extended dates and correct misheard accent.)

Show #119 of 2010, attended November 12.

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