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Defending The Caveman

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Is anyone shocked that jokes that originated during the Stone Age don't date much more after 15 years? Defending the Caveman, Rob Becker's prehistoric and prehysteric solo show about men, women, and their myriad differences, may have premiered in San Francisco in 1991, toured the country before its lengthy Broadway stay that started in 1995, and become a worldwide phenomenon in the years since. Watching the latest incarnation of it, which just opened at the Downstairs Theatre at Sofia's, makes it seem as though no time at all has passed. Whether this is a good thing is a separate question.

Though Becker's insights into both sexes are as trenchant as they ever were, a decade and a half of exposure to Seinfeld, Internet video semi-sensations, and the blustering baby-oiled braggadocio of the guidos and guidettes on Jersey Shore have given us different ways to laugh (and lament) how men and women deal with each other (and frequently don't). Becker's dividing the human race into hunters (men, who these days wield remote controls as their weapon of choice) and gatherers (women, now more of information than of nuts and berries) is still accurate, but seems a bit... tame? flat? hoary? Take your pick.

So this supremely odd amalgam of comedy, sex, and anthropology - set on a stage largely bare except for a Venus of Willendorf statue, cave paintings of bison and women, and the iconic rock-hewn easy chair and TV set - struggles mightily with issues of freshness unrelated to the underwear and towels the titular character insists on leaving around. Becker has made small adjustments since the earliest years of the show, which he himself stopped performing in 2006, but the text itself is still far too self-consciously clever and cuddly to elicit deep meanings or deep laughs.

Women collaborate (meaning they'll go buy chips and dip in groups of six), men negotiate ("You do it," "Why, I brought the bowl?). Women notice every detail about every conversation, and freak when men don't get the answers they want. Men hate shopping, for women it's the ultimate expression of their gathering instinct. Women say what's on their minds, men speak in a secret Y-chromosome code, and never the twain shall the languages meet. The only way this material could pierce through the bubble of familiarity surrounding all of us today is if our caveman guide is a uniquely magnetic comic force who demands our attention.

That's not quite the one we have here, named Paul Perroni. Clean-cut and dapper, like a computer programmer cleaned up for an all-too-rare date, Perroni struggles throughout to successfully summon his inner Neanderthal and never quite makes it. He also has trouble just grasping the jokes and engaging the audience - his few moments of unscripted interaction felt very ill-at-ease - and he delivers many of his lines with a swagger so scheming you can almost hear the built-in winking. You never quite believe that his wife, Connie, has inspired him both to heights of romantic ecstasy and the depths of his long-suppressed Cro-Magnon soul.

In fairness, Defending the Caveman suffers much the same kind of problem. It's never needed to be a classic or even consistent; it's just had to be something that men and women can attend together without fear of reprisal or embarrassment. And that's what it is still today. If it didn't provide essentially accurate,it wouldn't have been running 18 years somewhere on Earth (including over two years on Broadway). But even if one can't argue with its general content, it's hard not to wish large swaths of it didn't feel like they'd been transcribed from a cave wall in Lascaux rather than culled from carefully chosen Twitter posts. Male-female relations may not move on, but the world around them never stops.

Defending The Caveman
Through April 18
Downstairs Theatre at Sofia's, 227 West 46th Street, next to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
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