Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 14, 2012
The Performers by David West Read. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Jessica Wegener Shay. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Projection design by Richard DiBella. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Composer Julia Fleisher. Cast: Cheyenne Jackson, Ari Graynor, Daniel Breaker, Jenni Barber, with Alicia Silverstone and Henry Winkler.
That they don't deliver it is as much a problem with the early expectations they arouse as with the play itself. Despite the initial stage picture, the fact that it's all about porn stars communing for a major film awards ceremony in Las Vegas, and designer Jessica Wegener Shay swathing Jackson and his co-stars Ari Graynor and Jenni Barber in the most alluring getups that can be constructed from the least amount of fabric, The Performers is Sunday School innocent.
Its plot even reads (and plays) like a parody, the thing a hausfrau would pen to prove she's an untamed animal but that instead demonstrates how domesticated she truly is. Though Mandrew (Jackson) is devoted to his wife, Peeps (Graynor), she goes ballistic when she learns that he kissed a colleague: relative newcomer and Peeps's former friend, Sundown LeMay (Barber).
The implosion of their marriage unfolds at the same time Mandrew's high-school buddy, Lee (Daniel Breaker) has arrived in Sin City to interview him for the New York Post, and is fretting about the opportunities he's passing up as he plans to marry his own sweetheart, Sara (Alicia Silverstone) is the canned icing on the frozen cake.
Should this all not be quite enough for you, there's even a subplot, in which an aging star, Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler), worries about being put out to pasture and not having anything to fall back on.
Yes, dust thickly coats each of the 90 minutes of the play, and finding anything risqué or even mildly erotic is all but impossible. This is, in reality, one of those sexless sex comedies from the 1960s or 1970s that pushes the sex so it can sell tickets, but beneath the deceptively squeaky-clean veneer is really All About Love. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and a play as committed to promoting concepts of monogamy as this one (Lee and Sara have only ever been with each other, and Mandrew and Peeps follow strict rules during their professional assignations) is rather refreshing.
Even so, The Performers is perilously thin, offering neither the intricate plotting nor occasional huge laughs that a show of this genre ideally does. (Most prime-time network TV series are raunchier than this, for the record.) The crushing blow here, however, is that West has already proven he's capable of more. His The Dream of the Burning Boy, which premiered Off-Broadway as part of Roundabout Underground in the spring of 2011, was all about dancing around difficult issues (there, a teen death) and dramatizing the unsaid within a complex emotional environment — exactly the treatment that's cried out for here, but is nowhere in evidence.
What it gets instead are fizzy comic portraits from Graynor and Barber that work in an off-the-cuff way, despite depending so heavily on the squeaky voices the actresses deploy to excess; some gravitas from Winkler, who lends a recognizable dignity (if not weight) to the proceedings; and a moderately interesting couple in Lee and Sara, which Breaker and Silverstone play with a beguilingly virtuous likeability. Jackson, who has apparently constructed his performance from his abs outward, fails to make Mandrew either emotionally or intellectually convincing (two things, alas, the script essentially requires).
Cabnet's staging and Jeff Croiter's lights are fine; Anna Louizos's sets, which swankily depict a seedy-elegant Strip hotel and a flashy dive bar, are somewhat better than that. But what any of it is in service of is never clear: West says so little, refusing to turn out so much as even a bruising satire of the adult industry or the people in its orbit, that the evening devolves from overly inoffensive into pointlessness even though it doesn't offer you a single concrete reason to hate it.
Okay, correction. Straight men will have no trouble pinpointing one: that neither Graynor nor Barber is allowed to display anywhere near as much skin as Jackson does. That would suggest that West and his producers know (or, at any rate, have some strong impressions) of their audience. If only they knew what kind of play they were trying to put on.