Boys will be boys, men will be men, and often the twain shall meet. Or at least that's the case in Separating the Men from the Bull - the 14 males who populate Mike Heintzman and Neal Lerner's play are all lurking about life, caught somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. Strangely, you get the impression that most of them, whatever their true ages, wouldn't have it any other way.
Because, the play slyly argues, there's not always much difference between the two. Take, for example, two bona fide teens who are only starting to discover women but possess surprisingly sophisticated outlooks on the religious and cultural differences (and stereotypes) of Christians and Jews. Of another set of friends, one - facing imminent death after a hunting accident - expects his longtime pal to give up just about everything to look after his wife and children. And is the idea of two bulls - actual bulls, mind you - being concerned about impotence and dating proficiency really that far-fetched?
Okay, maybe. But not in the mad, mad, mad man world that Heintzman and Lerner have created, which is as capriciously funny as it is realistic. Well, at least in that dizzily non-realistic way that theatre can achieve when it's at its most captivating and original, and Separating the Men from the Bull is nothing if not those things.
It's also a perfect example of the kind of work we've already come to expect from the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret, which has demonstrated in less than a full season more creativity, versatility, and sheer showmanship than many well-established troupes. To make matters better, they've relocated from upstairs at (the now-defunct) Bennigan's on 47th Street to the more inviting confines of the West Bank Café's Laurie Beechman Theatre, where more comfortable seating and a more theatrical setting better encourage the relationship between performers and audience.
That's especially crucial in a show like this one, which thrives on the opportunities it gives its two-man company (co-author Lerner and Daniel Jenkins, last seen on Broadway in the Deaf West/Roundabout Big River) to get the audience roaring. And, when convenient, get them thinking. Though Heintzman and Lerner have laughs on their minds, they're also deeply concerned with the demands that women place on men and - even more importantly - the demands that men place on each other.
Basic, "hang out"-type friendships are broken down into their component elements, as if establishing them were as easy as filling out a computer-dating questionnaire. The aforementioned deathbed scene crosses every boundary of propriety, yet feels oddly believable. And when the two must cope with the death of a longtime female friend and sometime lover, they run the full gamut of emotions while demonstrating the unspoken understanding between men (and actors) that what's not said is often more powerful than what is.
That much of this richly sensitive work is also hilarious almost seems a happy accident. True, not everything clicks: The bull burlesque, which tries to examine the most debilitating of male problems through a wacky lens to put our overreactions in perspective, grows wearying long before the two form a boisterous bovine kickline. And the inclusion of a gay bar scene contrasts lust and love in a way that feels more obligatory than organic.
But director Becky London doesn't miss a trick, and her restrained, witty staging beautifully complements the script's carefully measured lunacy. True, Lerner is somewhat outmatched by Jenkins, whose outgrown-teen voice and physicality (which made him a natural to star in the musical version of Big) and irrepressibly awestruck demeanor better personify the essential innocence all the characters need to survive. But the two have superb chemistry together, and are a joy to watch even in the show's rockier moments.
Those are thankfully few and far between, though Jenkins has had to deal with additional rockiness of his own: A torn ligament in his knee forced him to take to crutches to make his way through the performance I attended. But, truth to tell, it's hard for me to imagine the show any other way: It was a highly appropriate look at yet another facet of the indomitable masculine spirit that Separating the Men from the Bull so fancifully criticizes and celebrates.
Separating The Men From The Bull