THE BANANA MONOLOGUES
IT'S JUST SEX
Date evenings used to be novelties, but they’ve recently blossomed (which I say only because exploded is too bombastic a word) into a genre unto itself. And they never quite feel as if they’re properly connected to the art of theatre. They’re too glib, too insubstantial, too franchise-minded, too obviously pandering to a demographic that doesn’t consist primarily of dedicated theatre lovers, but rather, young couples or social groups of men or women in the dating pool. And to use the phrase Jerry Seinfeld immortalized for rationalization, nothing wrong with that, save that they make drama criticism almost moot. (Did I say “almost”?)
A common subgenre is the solo evening. It purports to be a “play” for one actor (at its debut, almost always the author) but it’s really just a supersized standup comedy set (85-90 minutes, no ‘mish) organized under a single, dedicated topic. The template was set in 1995 with Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman, about (surprise, surprise) the difference between men and women. It opened on Broadway, he left, and it remained successful when Michael Chiklis took over. Producing and licensing the show became a cottage industry and for nearly two decades it has been continually presented all of the country and the world, in many languages. There have been several imitators, none anywhere near so successful.
The latest is The Banana Monologues, written by John R. Brennan, Jason C. Cooper and Mary Cimino based on a print-on-demand book by Cooper (under the pseudonym of his character Gus Weiderman) called Tales from the Relationship (you can get it at Lulu.com—on the virtual shelf right along with Powys Media’s new novels based on Space: 1999; seriously). It’s basically about a guy who stays in a relationship with a bimbette too long because the sex is smokin’, and the one performer—co-author Brennan—plays three roles: Gus, his girlfriend Alexis, and his penis—a paramilitary personality called Sgt. Johnson.
Though Brennan’s bio declares ample evidence of him being a seasoned comedian and improv artist, he’s not all that funny here, at least he won’t be to most comedy-minded theatergoers. He comes off very much like one of those lower-tier leading men types who dabble in trying to be funny such that you can feel the effort of workin’ it and practically hear him beg for the laugh with each line. As to the material itself: unrevelatory, middling and obvious
That said, he was getting his laughs from a concentrated pocket of the audience—and sure enough, they were the dating crowd. They were getting their dose of cheap self-recognition and that was pretty much the point. It bears remarking, though, that in my row sat an older middle aged couple. Where and how they got their tickets, comps or paid-for, I have no idea. But The Banana Monologues wasn’t 10 minutes into its 85 before they quietly got up and bailed on it. By my lights, they were to be envied.
At The Actors Temple Theatre, there’s It’s Just Sex, a comedy imported from Los Angeles, where it has been running to sold out houses and rave reviews (says the press materials) for two years. (Though web browsing seems to indicate that it hasn’t been two years straight through, but rather a successful first production and a number of return engagements, not all remounts of the same production.) The press materials also say this about the plot: “It's Just Sex depicts the lives of three typical couples, each experiencing the trials and tribulations of married life, during one fateful evening. With the kids away at camp, they gather for a routine cocktail party. But as the liquor flows, secrets, truths and resentments are revealed culminating in a 'partner swap.' After which, all involved are forced to deal with the resulting effects on their lives and marriages, and views of honesty, monogamy and relationship.”
As you might expect from an enterprise such as this, born in a town such as that, it’s kind of sitcommy and kind of shallow, not so much about life as the lives of pretty people unaffected by financial burden or survival issues; and, again, not really aimed at a crowd whose first priority is theatrical enrichment. But unusually for an enterprise such as this, born in a town like that, the script, by Jeff Gould, has enough substance, subtext and irony to be acted well if directed well enough, and under hit-sitcom veteran Rich Shaw’s helming, it is. The cast, too, is attractive and able; they play for real stakes without letting the work of “funny” show, their innate prettiness makes the evening date-night sexy, and that renders the evening amiable enough to take on its own terms, without yourself feeling the effort of accommodation. Which, all things considered, is a happy appraisal. Indeed, the cast, most having put in time with the original L.A. production, may be its strongest attraction. They are: Jackie Debatin, Elaine Hendrix, Michael Colby Jones, Gina Lapiana, Matt Walton, Salvator Xuereb and Molly Fahey. Make no mistake, It’s Just Sex is absolutely and unequivocally theatrical junk food…but for those with a craving for McComedy, it may hit the spot.
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