It’s hard seeing good plays die young, especially hysterically funny ones. The six talented performers who made up the cast of David West Read’s boisteriously bawdy Broadway boulevard comedy The Performers, which closed on Sunday, November 18th after opening three days earlier on the 15th, brought to their titillating roles a light touch that was sorely needed in our still-recessed economy.
For the sake of my own emotional health and well-being, instead of reverting to the past tense below, I’ll keep things in the present, as if I could still encourage you to race out to snag your tickets for The Performers before it’s too late — which, in a kinder world, I would be able to do.
Set at the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas, Read’s play pits a humdrum couple, Sara and Lee (Alicia Silverstone and Daniel Breaker), against their married porn counterparts, Mandrew and Pussy Boots a.k.a. “Peeps” (Cheyenne Jackson and Ari Graynor), as a way of showing how even porn stars can form lasting bonds — albeit with rules against kissing but not screwing other partners, at least on camera — and that homebodies need not necessarily turn their worlds upside down for cheap thrills if there’s magic already there.
Lee is a reporter for the New York Post who’s interviewing Mandrew, an old classmate of his who’s up for Best Male Performer at the AFA. Mandrew introduces Lee to his wife, Pussy, a brash ditz with one of the lowest IQs ever seen on the stage. Lee, a traditionalist at heart, nevertheless finds allure in the world of porn and commits to attending a post-awards party instead of seeing Barry Manilow in concert with Sara.
In a farcical attempt to get back at Lee, who’s ignited doubts within her as to his ability to keep her fanny aflame indefinitely, Sara flirts none too discreetly with Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler), an over-the-hill competitor of Mandrew’s for the title of Best Male Performer. Wood, who’s mentoring a hot young thing named Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber), Pussy’s fiercest competitor, spouts lame sex jokes by the handful, but he’s funny nonetheless because Winkler ignites an otherwise sleazy character with relatable charm.
Featuring characters who star in great films with names like The Planet of the Tits, The Performers is never dull even if it does follow many of the paint-by-numbers signposts common to more conventionally-themed romantic comedies. The raunchy jokes fly at such a speed (and land at such a high rate), that it’s hard to imagine too many warm-blooded audience members hung up for long on plot deficiencies.
Breathing life into David West Read’s farce is a formidable sextet of comedic talents. Ari Graynor, one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most talented young comedic actresses, slays ’em in the aisles as Peeps, entering with a roar (literally) and injecting the play with laughs throughout. Cheyenne Jackson is her lovably stupid match as Mandrew, wearing sheer shirts and leather pants, doing pushups and dreaming of being the New York Times centerfold.
“Playing it straight” up against the porn titans, Daniel Breaker is delightfully nerdy, and Alicia Silverstone proves that she’s got the chops for stage comedy after her last so-so Broadway outing in Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still. One moment she’s Meg Ryan cute, yearning to be just that tiny bit more “spontane-ass” than she’s comfortable being, then the next she’s rolling around on her back in bed, telling Winkler’s Chuck to “make [her] some coffee, bitch.”
Winkler and Barber provide ample support (as amply supportive as Barber’s exaggeratedly humungous bra) as our porntagonists’ (if you will) nemeses; there really isn’t a single weak link amongst the sexy six who man this consistently smile-inducing play. By the end of the evening, as one porn vixen comforts the other with her Best Anal trophy, it’s hard to see why a closing notice should be posted so soon after this production’s opening night. Perhaps Broadway audiences shied away from its raunchy subject matter, or its name stars weren’t “name” enough anymore, but one can’t help but feel that a crowd-pleaser got shafted too soon, and the theatrical landscape this winter is a little sadder for its premature evacuation.