Off Broadway Reviews
part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
No, subtlety is not the chief strength of The Banana Monologues. Just reading its title is undoubtedly enough for you to feel that you know anything and everything of import about this one-man show playing at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. And chances are that all your assumptionsabout its level of humor, about its effectiveness, about its shock value (or lack thereof)are precisely correct.
What you're likely to get wrong, if for understandable reasons, is that John R. Brennan, Jason C. Cooper, and Mary Cimino have not written merely a Y chromosomeoriented version of Eve Ensler's signature work, The Vagina Monologues. This is, believe it or not, an actual play with actual characters, which derives its humor as much from the ways they interact with each other as it does one man's rocky exploits in pursuit of love and less lofty experiences.
This opens up an opportunity for a talented actor, in this case Brennan, to tackle all sides of a typical romance. Of course, he plays Gus Weiderman, a typical almost-30-year-old pharmacist living in South Carolina (not coincidentally, the same place this show premiered in 2007). But he's also Gus's girlfriend, Alexis, a smoking-hot pharmacist in training; and the, er, thing that keeps coming between them, which Gus has named, none too obliquely, Sergeant Johnson. Other roles, most notably Alexis's male redneck best friend, Darby (whom Gus sees as his rival for Alexis's affection), make cameo appearances as well.
Brennan has the chops to tackle all this. Bearing an earnest but rough-around-the-edges style, he smoothly captures Gus's braggadocio and yearnings, and Alexis's spicy allure, even if she comes across as more demure overall than her sexual activities and appetites would suggest. Rendering Darby as a Gollum-like troll who has a strange fixation on Pinot grigio threatens to send his scenes over the top. But otherwise, Brennan draws clear lines between the major players, and flips effortlessly between them as they fulfill their roles in the story. (Gus and Alexis's more intimate encounters, presided over by the eternally battle-ready Sgt. Johnson, are the evening's chaotic, comedic highlights.)
It's the story itself where The Banana Monologues slips up. Gus and Alexis meet at the hospital where he works and she's interning, then carry on long distance for two years while she conducts her residency in St. Louis, and they reunite just long enough to break up, but you get little sense of who they are as a couple. In fairness, this is one of the issues they deal with: They admit that their relationship isn't necessarily based on an enduring emotional bond, and that's responsible for much of their friction.
But not seeing how they are at their best makes it difficult to appreciate, let alone sympathize with, what they're like at their worst. One of the few insights we get into their chemistry (or lack thereof) occurs at a beach, when Gus leaves Alexis just long enough to go work out, and she must fend off other men's advances while he's awayand then explain them when he gets back. Apart from that, their dust-upsincluding a very funny one conducted entirely over voicemail messagesseem less intended to define these two specific people than to sketch the borders of relationships we can all recognize: the sleepless nights, the daily fights, the quick-to-bargain when they reach the heights. Yes, Lorenz Hart could have written this play.
Debra Whitfield has directed with a light but effective hand, helping Brennan find the right balance of coziness and theatrical size to make The Banana Monologues as appealing as possible (sorry, sorry). Their joint talent ensures that the show is a lively hour, but it's not enough to bestow lasting weight on what is ultimately nothing more than a flimsy, familiar tale.
The Banana Monologues