Curtain Up, Pants Down

Making theater in New York is a tricky process, especially for small theater companies on shoestring budgets. But necessity is the mother of invention, and these artists often find extraordinary ways both to cut costs and to lure new audiences. The Play About the Naked Guy boldly announces one fictional company’s latest attempt to make ends meet: to fill seats, they take a break from their traditional focus on the classics (their mouthful of a mission statement preaches their devotion to obscure, noncommercial projects) to bring in a more splashy production that will show more guts—and much more skin.

Writer David Bell channels both the backstage wit of Noises Off and the over-the-top hilarity of Waiting for Guffman. But despite the nimble, inventive direction of Tom Wojtunik and a handful of memorable acting performances, The Play About the Naked Guy quickly stretches its jokes too thin. Its insider-y, cheeky humor, stylized physical comedy, and outsize personalities could be lifted directly out of a sitcom, which isn't entirely a bad thing. Within a 30-minute time slot, the story would be a predictable yet endearing diversion; but at an intermissionless (and often arduous) two hours, the humor eventually dries up and withers away.

Still, once you steel yourself for the repetitious ride, there’s plenty to enjoy in this good-spirited production. Married couple Dan (Jason Schuchman) and Amanda (Stacy Mayer) run the idealistic, struggling Integrity Players, and their sole company member, Harold J. Lichtenberg (Wayne Henry), hits a gay club one night and returns with a flamboyant director in tow. Eddie Russini (Christopher Borg) prances on the scene with his two sidekick pixies (Christopher Sloan and Chad Austin), as well as a daring proposition: he suggests that the company let him direct the next production, which will star Kit (Dan Amboyer), an infamous porn star.

The usual calamities and misadventures ensue, led by the preening presence of Amanda’s mother Mrs. Anderson (Ellen Reilly), a vicious personality determined to foil the production and drag her daughter back to her idea of civilization: Westchester. Another major snag surfaces in the disapproval of Dan, who doesn’t want to see his theater company—or his wife—compromised by such blatant, lewd commercialism.

Ultimately, Bell's writing tries to focus on too many scenarios. Will Amanda and Dan save their theater company (and their marriage)? Will Kit become a more “serious” actor and be redeemed by the wisdom of acting legend Uta Hagen? Will Harold—who comes out of the closet early in the production—become more confident in his sexuality? And—most importantly—will the show go on? Adeptly intertwined, these stories might create a cohesive (and coherent) whole, but here, the scenes are strung together too tangentially to be fully tantalizing.

The acting is similarly uneven: Mayer is all winsome sincerity as the amiable Amanda, but as her cloying husband, Schuchman’s over-earnestness quickly becomes wearing. Clad in animal prints and towering heels, Reilly makes an old stereotype fresh and ferocious as the fearsome Mrs. Anderson. Borg and his sassy duo make a delightfully catty trio, even with such campy, "Will and Grace"-esque exclamations as “Heavens to Oprah!” and “Sweet Hillary for President!,” and Henry consistently connects as the nervous Harold, especially in his uncertain yet determined “strip-off” with Kit, who threatens to unseat him from his usual leading role. Amboyer’s Kit is appropriately easy on the eyes, but his soft voice and distracted presence get a bit lost amid the scaffolding-heavy set.

The glitzy final performance provides a bit of a pay-off, but the road to the finale is paved with tedious material. Filled with theater references (Charles Isherwood, Actor’s Equity, the Tony Awards, and Patti LuPone all get shout-outs), The Play About the Naked Guy speaks to the struggling (naked?) theater artist in all of us, especially as it asks that most unsettling of questions: What are the consequences of “selling out”?

Don’t expect any serious answers here, but perhaps an overextended sitcom about the tribulations of theater people is just the diversion and release needed to stimulate and inspire artists to move beyond the usual, tired fare—and The Play About the Naked Guy.

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