Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison
Ars Gratia Artis. Art for art’s sake. Can there be a more noble goal, a loftier ambition? But can that sentiment support a theatre company today? In the case of the Integrity Players, the fictional company at the heart of David Bell’s The Play About the Naked Guy, produced by Emerging Artists Theatre and currently playing at Baruch Performing Arts Center, the answer is a resounding no.
Known more for staging obscure (in every sense of the word) dramas than for the size of their audiences, the Integrity Players are in dire straits. Most of their company has quit, leaving only artistic director Dan (Jason Schuchman), his pregnant wife Amanda (Stacy Mayer), and their token Equity actor Harold (Wayne Henry). They’re out of money. They’re about to lose their theatre space. Their only financial backer, Mrs. Anderson (Ellen Reilly), Amanda’s mother, is pulling the plug. While she was willing to humor her daughter, now she’s ready for the company to shut down, for Dan to disappear, and for her daughter to return to a life of privilege in Connecticut where she belongs.
All seems lost until a chance encounter between the closeted Harold and Eddie Russini (Christopher Borg), a slick and sleazy producer of extremely popular and extremely base shows catering to an audience less interested in live theatre than live nudes on stage. To give a sense, his most recent masterpieces are Naked Boys Running Around Naked and Drunk Frat Boys Making Porn. Eddie’s idea? To borrow the Integrity Players’ cavernous space at Baruch Performing Arts Center and stage his next big hit – a gay musical based on the life of Christ. Rather than reveal the title, I’ll let it be a surprise. Needless to say, the American Family Association would not approve.
Unsurprisingly, Dan is horrified by the idea. But egged on by her mother and the fact that she’s expecting a child, Amanda votes to give it a shot in hopes of a big payday. Harold, blinded by lust for Kit Swagger (Dan Amboyer) the porn star who is to play Jesus, votes in favor of Eddie’s scheme as well.
What follows is Dan’s nightmare and the audience’s delight.
Bell’s script is a hoot, full of peppy one-liners. There are plenty of hilarious jokes about the New York theatre scene; one about Marian Seldes in particular is awesome. The play, however, at nearly two hours is a little long for what should be a breezy farce, and despite Tom Wojtunik’s deft directing, drags from time to time.
Fortunately, the cast is excellent. In particular, Christopher Borg and Ellen Reilly own the stage when they are on it. Borg, even at his most sedate, plays Russini as a cross between Svengali and Norma Desmond. Reilly is Cruella De Vil wrapped in Martha Stewart. The two are wonderful to watch and their scenes together are terrific. Stacy Mayer, whose Amanda is a good girl just waiting to be corrupted, plays the wide-eyed innocent with great skill. Christopher Sloan and Chad Austin play Russini’s angertwink sidekicks, T. Scott and Edonis. T. Scott has built his gay persona around Jack McFarland, Sean Hayes’ character on Will & Grace (and it must be said that Sloan does one hell of Jack McFarland imitation) and Edonis is pretty, but shallow as a saucer and dumb as a bag of hair. Needless to say, both are pretty darn funny and do a wicked job skewering gay youth-obsessed culture.
After Borg and Reilly’s performances, my personal favorite is Wayne Henry’s uptight Harold, which Henry plays with a certain Tony Randall-like aplomb. His character is amusing, but heartbreakingly earnest about his love of acting. In one of the best scenes from the play, Harold passes that enthusiasm along to a suddenly serious Kit. Dan Amboyer has the snarly, strutting Kit Swagger (what a great name) down pat, but it’s at the end of the play when Kit, having been coached in the actor’s art by Harold, takes on Harold’s plummy speaking voice and cries out, “I have a new master! And his name is Uta Hagen!” that Amboyer really shines.
Jason Schuchman has the unfortunate job of playing straight man to a stage full of funny men. That’s not to say that he doesn’t do a good job at it, but in a farce the earnest characters are never the ones that stick in the mind. Despite that, Schuchman’s Dan does have some good zingers – he has one particularly funny joke about Actors’ Equity – but overall, he is the voice of reason and in a zany show like this, that leaves him the odd man out.
While Bell’s final judgment of artistic versus commercial success seems a little cynical at first, it’s worth noting that Naked Boys Singing continues to pack in the crowds, while stellar Off and Off-Off Broadway productions languish. If the Eddie Russinis of the world really are the future of theatre, at least Bell can make us laugh about it.
Directed by Tom Wojtunik
Stage Manager: Jennifer Marie Russo
Choreographer: Ryan Kasprzak
Costume Designer: David Withrow
Set Designer: Michael P. Kramer
Lighting Designer: Travis Walker
Composition Sound Designer: Ryan Homsey
Press Agent/Marketing Director: Katie Rosin
Properties Intern: Ellys R. Abrams
Stage Crew: Jamie Phelps, Terra Vetter, Julie Feltman
Sound Board Operator: Kevin Wilder
Featuring Christopher Borg (Eddie Russini), Christopher Sloan (T. Scott), Dan Amboyer (Kit), Ellen Reilly (Mrs. Anderson), Jason Schuchman (Dan), Stacy Mayer (Amanda), Wayne Henry (Harold), Chad Austin (Edonis).
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Avenue
February 9 – March 2Mon. 7 PM; Friday 9:30 PM; Sat. 8 PM; Sun. 5 PM
Visit www.theatermania.com for tickets.