November 21, 2012

Why "The Performers" Should Have Been Able to Perform At Least A Little Bit Longer

I’ve had a soft spot for the porn industry ever since a blind date turned out to be a cameraman in the business and took me to the party of a producer he worked with. I was reminded of that kinky evening (details supplied to close friends upon request) a few years later when I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific 1997 movie “Boogie Nights.”  

 And now, although I don’t usually write about shows that have already closed, I can’t keep myself from chiming in on The Performers, the porn-world comedy that opened last Thursday night and closed on Sunday after just 22 previews and five performances. 

It may have been a premature evacuation (sorry; I'm really going to try to make that be the last of the sex puns in this post). There have been far worse shows that got—and are getting—longer runs.  

 And while this one was silly and sitcomy and riddled with gratuitous profanity and clichés galore, it was also, at moments, surprisingly sweet and LOL funny. Plus it opened with the super-hunky Cheyenne Jackson in a loincloth.  Now how bad could that be?

The audience at the performance I saw—a true bridge-and-tunnel Saturday matinee crowd—absolutely loved the show.  And I suspect they would have told their friends and neighbors to see it if the producers, who seem to have had a capitalization only slightly larger than my checking account, hadn’t pulled the plug so quickly.

What’s truly a shame is that The Performers had some terrific performances. But first let me tell you what it's about. The whole thing takes place in a Las Vegas hotel that is hosting a porn industry awards ceremony in which Jackson’s character Mandrew is up for a major prize that he’s desperate to win. 

Mandrew's chief competitor is the veteran star Chuck Wood, played by a game, if slightly stiff (give me a break, it’s hard to avoid the puns) Henry Winkler, who will be forever known as The Fonz from the hit ‘70s sitcom “Happy Days.” 

Also competing for awards are Mandrew’s wife Peeps (Ari Graynor) and her big-busted frenemy Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber). On hand to chronicle the doings is Mandrew’s old high school pal Lee, a reporter for the New York Post, played in classic straight-man style by Daniel Breaker, and Lee’s fiancée Sara, an appropriately wide-eyed Alicia Silverstone.

These are all good actors and they knew that the material was gossamer thin but they also knew that the play wasn’t aiming to resolve the problems of the world and so under the zippy direction of Evan Cabnet, they jumped right into the spirit of the thing. 

There was no pretentious irony or conspicuous winking to signal that they were better than the show. Instead, the cast just embraced the silliness and, in the process, found some humanity in their cartoonish characters. 

That’s particularly true of Jackson and Graynor, both hysterical as the Brad and Angelina of their porno universe and endearing as a couple trying to make their marriage work.

Most critics paid props to Jackson and Graynor but they seemed almost offended by the show itself. It averaged a C on StageGrade, where an overenthusiastic A from Entertainment Weekly was overwhelmed by five Fs (click here to read them all). 

The naysayers weren’t turned off by the subject matter or because they thought the show was salacious (which it actually wasn’t—the loincloth was as risqué as it got) but, I think, because they were so disappointed that this show had been written by the promising young playwright David West Read (click here to read a Q&A with him).

The 29-year-old Read’s first produced play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, was a hit with critics and audiences when it played in the Roundabout Theater’s Underground series for emerging playwrights a few seasons ago. But that play was a wry coming-of-age tale.  The Performers was a silly just-for-kicks farce. There ought to be room for both.

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