PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Performers; Bazooms and Neglect
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of the new comedy The Performers.
Talk about performance pressure! The Performers, the rather brave-for-Broadway new comedy that bowed Nov. 14 at the Longacre, takes place on the eve of the AFAs — the Adult Film Awards, which are bestowed annually on the Best Bestowed.
What we have here, aside from a failure to communicate beyond the physical, is a sentimental love story trapped in the body of a cerebral sex farce. As Mandrew (Cheyenne Jackson), who's up for an assortment of sordid awards, was just telling the Post reporter, a buddy from high school named Lee (Daniel Breaker), he should be billed Love Star, not Porn Star. (Some actors are so serious about their work.)
It turns out that neither is much of an expert in the love department. Smugly monogamous Lee is inching toward the altar with the only girl he ever had sex with, Sara from the same high school (Alicia Silverstone). Mandrew married a woman he met on the set, Peeps (Ari Graynor), who has just become 30 and pregnant and is further stressed by the fact that her cinematic rival, Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber), has Siliconed herself into the realm of National Geographic.
If all of the above isn't indication enough, you really realize how far away you are from "Happy Days" when Henry Winkler swaggers cocksure into a lounge and utters an opening line that will clear your sinuses. The former Fonz has turned into the grand old man of porno, one Chuck Wood, and he is in a heated dead-heat with Mandrew for dubious "top honors" in their highly specialized fields of endeavor.
For 90 naughty minutes, this sextet (the noun is used advisedly) mixes it up in their interchangeable hotel suites during awards weekend in Las Vegas, conversing mostly in non sequiturs, innuendos and raunchy one-liners. If you quoted the lines that get the big laughs of the evening, the dialogue would turn to dust on the page.
"The lines don't survive well out of context," the author, David West Read, allowed later at the espace after-party. "I just always remembered where the characters are coming from, and I tried to make most of the jokes come from character. The comedy here is fish-out-of-water comedy and more classic in a sense. People think, coming in, it's going to be shock humor, but to me it's about people from different parts of the world who just don't know much about each other and each other's lives — showing not their ignorance but their ignorance of each other."
Coming from one so young (he made it to Broadway whole months before his 30th birthday), it's surprising to find such seedy, been-round-the-block types roaming Read's head. "Most of the characters have been in my head from the very beginning. I actually cut a major character at one point. Mandrew's mother had a big part. She had a fling with Chuck Wood, but, by getting rid of her in the play, I thought it allowed me to refocus the attention and turn Chuck into more of a fairy godfather who looks over all the characters in the play instead of just being one of them."
Had she made the cut, Read would have wanted Mandrew's mother to be played by Meryl Streep, which is commendably Big Thinking. Normally, he doesn't start out writing roles for actors. "I never dreamed we would get any of these actors, but, once we started working with them in workshops and readings, I wrote directly towards them as best as I could, and I tried to deepen and juice up the parts so that these amazing actors would have something to really sink their teeth into."
His next play — number three — is finished. "Well, it still needs work," Read sheepishly added. "It's called The Great Pretender, and it's about children's television. It's very different from all this. I'm trying to bounce around a little bit, I guess."
Read bounced into public view last year from the bowels of the Laura Pels Theatre at Roundabout Underground's Black Box. His play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, was a somber and sturdy exploration of how a teenager's sudden death impacted on his friends and family — one of many thoughtful dramas to come out of this secret subterranean vault. The series is booked by Robyn Goodman, who stepped up to the plate and became the lead producer bringing Read to Broadway.
"She knew this was something different for me," Read reasoned. "She was excited I was trying something totally different and wanted to go on that journey with me."
Evan Cabnet, an equally young Turk (34) who helmed that play as well as The Performers, had praise for the producer, also. "Robyn is the most generous and nurturing producer I've ever worked with," he said. "It's a testament to her that this didn't feel risky — not in the process. I know there are all sorts of production elements you need to be thinking about, but Robyn really protected us all from that and just let us do our work. I have to tell you it was wild being at the Longacre in the middle of previews, getting out new pages and pencils and highlighters like we would be doing with any play anywhere, but there we were on a Broadway stage in the afternoon a week or two from opening night and working on new material."
He's particularly proud of the way Read transitioned into the big league. "He's 29 years old. This is his second play that has gone into production, and what a playwright is up against going from the friendly confines of a 60-seat basement theatre to Broadway where there is no brighter light — he has handled it elegantly, with good humor, and always stayed true to his idea of what the play should be."
Both are making their Broadway debuts the hard way (no pun intended — really). "Something we thought about very early on was that the pornographic angle is the scenario, not the plot — it's the setting rather than the subject matter — so very quickly you get accustomed to the language. You learn what the rules of that world are, and then you're more interested in the characters. What we did in the rehearsal room was focus almost exclusively on that — character trajectory, relationship questions, and really thinking through what the hearts of all these characters were."
It was this longer-view, softer-side of the material that pulled Winkler into the play and back to Broadway. "It really is a play about the heart, and it's deeply touching to me," he opined. "All I did was read it out loud three times for investors with Ari and Cheyenne. I just listened to them, and my heart swelled."
Jackson gave Goodman credit for getting him in on the ground floor. "She thought of me for it, and I just knew it was a part I had to do. I loved this character. He always looks on the bright side of everything, and I love his positivity. He's so defensive. He's always worried about everybody thinking he's stupid. The only thing he thinks he has to offer is his big dick, but there's much more to him. It was fun to find that. I worked with Larry Moss, my acting teacher, for a long time, and we found him!"
Graynor, playing his Peeps with a voice-cracking angst, runs away with her share of scenes. "I have to say she is my favorite character of the ones that I've played. She's so full of heart, and she's so vulnerable, and she's so open — and only acts on instinct. I just love that about her and applaud it and want to be more like that myself."
Much of the merriment of the show is centered around her coping with various adversities, small but nagging ones. What's her trick for winning the audience over?
"It's all about commitment. As an actor, you always have to commit to whatever you're doing, but I think — especially in this kind of comedy and with these kinds of characters — it's easy for them to become caricatures so we've all consciously worked hard to make them as grounded and soulful as possible. So when they say ridiculous things, you're on board with it rather than think, 'What are you saying?'"
Silverstone is happy to leave the silver screen again. "I love being on Broadway, doing theatre," professed the actress whose stage notches consist of The Graduate and Time Stands Still. "The director and the writer and I worked very closely here, and they were so generous in letting me create Sara. It was a really fun experience."
Breaker appreciated the break from broader comedy. "I don't usually get to play the straight man who sets 'em up so it was a thrill going from Donkey in Shrek to this.
"And I love this cast. What's extraordinary is that you have these five other actors who are very unique in their common styles — very original — and they have come together, thanks to the beautiful writing skills of David West Read, to make this wonderful piece that is sweet and funny and sexy and bawdy and full of heart."
As the Siliconed-silly Sundown, a chesty but empty and surprisingly innocent vessel, Barber showed up at the party normally proportioned, as she was when she did Goldie Hawn's Oscar-winning role in Off-Broadway's recent replant of Cactus Flower.
It was possible to duck the indelicate measurements question by citing recent prosthetic stage miracles (Cyrano de Bergerac and The Heiress), and she immediately, eagerly, went for it: "Oh, yes, yes. The same category as that."
Not everyone can emotionally turn on a dime in platform shoes, but she managed nicely. "I love that quality in her. It energizes itself. You don't have to push to work."
First-nighters included Jason Butler Harner, a Cock contingent of one; Justin Long, late of Seminar and longing for more Broadway; Keith Nobbs, suddenly hirsuted for Off-Broadway's upcoming The Great God Pan; Wild With Happy's Colman Domingo; film director Mark Webb with his "Amazing Spider-Man" leading lady, Zooey Deschanel, now a "New Girl" with a new main-squeeze, screenwriter Jamie Linden; Bravo's Andy Cohen with the very funny Amy Sedaris; director Michael Wilson, bracing to begin rehearsing Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson for Talley's Folly in January; Jon Bernthal, late of "The Walking Dead" and headed to MCC Theater; Krysta Rodriguez and Andy Mientus, two from "Smash"; Rachel Dratch, late of "Saturday Night Live"; Melissa Errico, fresh from her 54 Below triumph, with hubby Patrick McEnroe; lady-in-red Carla Gugino; Cinderella scribe Douglas Carter Beane; monologuist-actor Eric Bogosian, who played Silverstone's lover in Time Stands Still, nearing the end of his five-year novel-writing bender about a 1920s-vintage Armenian assassin ("But who cares what I'm doing? The most important thing after somebody comes to see The Performers is to go over and see Emotional Creature, which my beautiful wife [Jo Bonney] just directed and opened two nights ago at the Signature"); James [Davis] and Jaymes [Vaughan], the "Amazing Race" hunks; Tammy Blanchard, an Emmy-winning Judy Garland and a Tony-nominated Gypsy Rose Lee; Mark Feuerstein and Paulo Costanzo, two "Royal Pains"; Linda Lavin with hubby Steve Bakunas; stage-turning-opera director Michael Mayer, and Olivia Wilde.
Honored guest on opening night was Austin Tracy, a 23-year-old aspiring playwright once of Michigan and now of New York City. He won a Twitter contest to come up with the best porn title. His winning entry: Slutty Slutty Mandrew Jackson.
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