The Full Monty: Televisionâeuro;”If Good Televisionâeuro;”Comes to Broadway

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.



The
Full Monty
, in case you’ve been orbiting Saturn,
is a British phrase meaning totally naked. It is also, again for planetary vacationers,
the title of a $3.5 million 1997 movie about unemployed British steelworkers
who try to raise their spirits and some cash by becoming strippers, which surprised
everyone by earning $256 million. As I walked up to the Eugene O’Neill
Theater to attend the new musical based on this film and saw the title in huge
burlesque-style lights, I suddenly saw the slyness of the producers’ decision
to stick with this riskily foreign phrase. Smack in the middle of Giuliani’s
cleaned-up, viceless theater district, a marquee is now installed on a respectable
building that basically reads "ALL NUDE!!!"


By the time
this review appears, The Full Monty will have settled in for a run to
the end of this year and beyond. It deserves the good fortune as much as any
of the other undemanding entertainments currently on offer around it. Its appeal
is in no small measure the product of a string of clever planning decisions–the
first of which was to transport the action from Sheffield, in England’s
industrial north, to Buffalo, NY. This allowed the characters to become objects
of identification on Broadway in a much broader and more intimate way than would’ve
been possible with a British setting.


The second
clever decision was the choice of a little-known composer/lyricist named David
Yazbek, who is young enough not to possess a domineering style yet. The movie,
let’s remember, isn’t a musical, though it does contain music and
dancing. Yazbek’s humbly pleasant pop, rock and soul tunes, with wonderfully
gritty, down-to-earth lyrics, are the ideal magnifier for Full Monty’s
homespun atmosphere, because they never contradict or overwhelm the essence
of the blue-collar characters. The challenge–ably met–was to keep
those characters consistently entertaining without ever making them seem implausibly
skilled.


The Full
Monty
isn’t an important or innovative film in any serious sense, though
it obviously has wide appeal. The potential appeal of this musical is even wider.
Its attraction for gay New Yorkers hardly needs mentioning, but the show also
shrewdly plays to two sides of the straight political fence. The story could
be read as a paean to marriage, since several monogamous ones are rescued in
it, and also as a tale of tolerance, since Jerry, the lead character (played
by Patrick Wilson), starts out reflexively violent toward gays, then ends up
with a pair of gay friends. Book writer Terrence McNally deserves credit for
walking this difficult and characteristically American line. He has made the
evening feel as familiar as television, and mostly without seeming to pander.
Everyone either is or knows someone who is just like these bumbling, ordinary
guys, who are made to seem so fun and interesting, and everyone leaves the theater
feeling they could actually do what they’ve seen and enjoyed.


In some ways,
the musical The Full Monty is more comfortable in its skin than the film
was. The film had trouble arriving at a steady seriocomic tone, as the characters
were introduced in situations so seriously and realistically grave (such as
attempted suicide and a breakdown of trust between a father and his 12-year-old
son) that their heavy shadow couldn’t be adequately lifted by either the
lighthearted background music or the antics in the strip-show rehearsals. A
stage musical has no use for such filmic realism, so whatever gravity this story
possesses is buoyant from the beginning. The attempted suicide of the character
Malcolm (Jason Danieley), for instance, takes place in a silly model car and
leads directly into a deliciously sarcastic song about despair begun by Jerry:
"Let’s find a rock/I mean a big-ass rock/or maybe something like a
cinderblock is better/I’ll hoist it up/and drop it on your face…my buddy."
The adaptors also shrank the role of Nathan, Jerry’s son (played by Thomas
Michael Fiss and Nicholas Cutro in alternation), happily lifting a cloying cloud,
since Nathan’s facial expressions were used persistently in the film as
a gauge of Jerry’s progress from self-contempt to self-respect.


The show does
betray a trace of nervousness concerning how a bunch of steelworkers, most of
whom have probably never been to a theater, could believably put together a
knockout burlesque number in two weeks, with nothing to guide them but the evening-dance-class
experience of their former foreman and the "natural talent" (ahem)
of the sole black man among them. A showbiz war-horse character named Jeanette
Burmeister (Kathleen Freeman) has been added, showing up out of nowhere to offer
free piano accompaniment, professional advice and to drop names and self-deprecatory
humor. The conception of the Act I finale is also a bit condescending–a
"basketball dance" implying that the only way American men could possibly
grasp the concept of fluid body movement is by imitating Michael Jordan’s
shooting moves.


It’s a
testimony to the skill of director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry
Mitchell that none of this irritates in any major way. Most of what one takes
away from The Full Monty is delight at the variety and sparkle its makers
found in ordinariness and ineptitude. All of the principal actors are excellent,
in particular Wilson, Andre De Shields as Noah ("Horse") Simmons,
Marcus Neville as Harold Nichols and John Ellison Conlee as Dave Bukatinsky,
the token fat guy. The female roles are much less developed, but some actresses
nevertheless also stand out: Emily Skinner as Harold’s wife Vicki, Annie
Golden as Dave’s wife Georgie and Lisa Datz as Jerry’s ex-wife Pam.
John Arnone’s set struck me at first as unhelpfully drab–dominated
by dull green cardboard panels bent to look like corrugated metal and flanked
by orange girders, partial streetlamps and a smokestack backdrop–but as
the show progressed, Howell Binkley’s lighting added the needed vibrancy.
The Full Monty is so honestly and smartly put together, it makes you
want to see virtues in its imperfections, and that’s rare indeed on Broadway.


Eugene O’Neill
Theater, 230 W. 49th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B’way), 239-6200, through
Jan. 28.



 


Juno and The
Paycock
By Sean
O’Casey



Written in 1924, Juno
and the Paycock
is the middle play in what has come to be known as Sean
O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy: a series of tragicomic dramas set during
years of violence and unrest after the Easter Uprising of 1916, which rescued
the Abbey theater financially and temporarily made it seem like a literary powerhouse
again. O’Casey wrote indelibly about the slums, tenements and underclass
of Dublin; he was spoken of as the spiritual heir to J.M. Synge (who died in
1909) until he was run out of town (after the 1926 riots provoked by Plough
and the Stars
) by indignant former fans who never understood the deflation
of myth and mindless social tradition that had been central to his works all
along.


I’ve often felt
guilty for not liking O’Casey more than I do. I appreciate him intellectually–he
has moral complexity, important historical settings, memorable characters–but
in performance his plots strike me as drearily predictable. At their worst,
they’re simplistically melodramatic, seeded with leaden hints like, "I
expect the first cheque for a couple o’ hundhred [sic] any day." I
can imagine that his characterizations could supply sufficient complexity and
surprise to keep media-age minds from leaping disastrously ahead if a production
were cast with first-rate Irish actors (authentic accents being crucial in work
where the mellifluousness of the language is so central). Unfortunately, such
actors seem to have been mostly unavailable for this Roundabout Theater Co.
production directed by John Crowley.


Juno tells the
story of the ruin of the Boyle family during the Irish civil war of 1922. The
comic shiftlessness of the strutting "Captain" Boyle (the "peacock"
or "paycock" of the title) and his sponging friend Joxer is played
off a background of desperate poverty, senseless revenge killings and the more
gradual and "sensible" moral compromises of an array of subsidiary
figures. Crowley does have one terrific Irish actress named Dearbhla Molloy
playing the Captain’s wife Juno, and the scene near the end when she has
the stage to herself is the most moving in the show. Other highlights include
the marvelously dilapidated living-room set designed by Rae Smith, Gretchen
Cleevely’s proudly pert portrayal of the Boyles’ daughter Mary, and
a generally effective air of menace and superstition surrounding the bursts
of sectarian violence.


The main trouble is
that Jim Norton, the actor playing the Captain, is devoid of charm and confidence–neither
quite funny nor annoying enough to make his decisive provocations clear. Thomas
Jay Ryan as Joxer is more convincingly slimy, but neither he nor anyone else
can seem to maintain a believable brogue, much less hold it up to Molloy’s.
Liam Craig gives the stiffest and most implausibly Irish performance of all
as Charles Bentham, the unscrupulous schoolteacher who knocks up Mary, playing
him as a stony-faced, undifferentiated villain-in-plaid whom Mary’d have
to be a moron to trust.


Middling actors and
prejudices about O’Casey aside, though, the most serious problem with this
production is that it makes no case whatsoever for the play’s revival in
our place and time. Conceived as a political work, Juno now joins the
ranks of Arms and the Man, The Rainmaker, The Deep Blue Sea,
The Lion in Winter, The Man Who Came to Dinner and all the other
classics and pseudo-classics the Roundabout has produced over the years with
the tacit guarantee that they will be utterly unprovocative and inoffensive
to its subscribers.


Gramercy Theater, 127
E. 23rd St. (betw. Lexington & Park Ave. S.), 777-4900 or 307-4100, through
Dec. 24.


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