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Men On Boats

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - month day, year

Men On Boats
Photo by Elke Young

Masculinity gets a thorough dunking—almost a drowning—in Men on Boats, the Jaclyn Backhaus play that just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in a coproduction from Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb (which staged the premiere at its Summerworks festival last year). The unquenchable, often inexplicable, yearning of males of the human species to risk their own and others' lives in pursuit of dangerous and foolhardy dreams of glory could scarcely be explored more completely or faithfully, even if—especially if—any of the 10 actors in this oddly epic and enjoyable saga were, in fact, men themselves.

It's Backhaus's explicit dictate in her script, however, that every role be played by a performer who does not conform the "cisgender white man" identification. That's significant because it applied to each of the historical figures she chronicles in this whimsical riff on the frontier-expanding explorations of John Wesley Powell in 1869, which took him and his team on the first government-sanctioned trip down the Colorado River in search of the "Big Canyon." (Events are based on those Powell recorded in his journals, and published in "The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.") But in most other ways it's irrelevant, as this cast leaves you wanting for nothing—first and foremost a jolt of testosterone.

From the opening scene, in which the group, led by Powell (Kelly McAndrew), plows down the Colorado in their cutout boats, you don't question their rugged determination to achieve their goal at any cost. Sure, they may speak in a present-day vernacular, and they seem slightly more aware of the silliness of the setup than they let on in dialogue. But ultimately they immerse you in the immense challenge before these people: traversing a land that, except for tiny pockets of Mormon settlers, had been utterly untamed by civilization. (Well... maybe. Perhaps the most delightful moment of many comes to life when this belief is (indirectly) questioned by a pair of wry Native Americans whose perspective is, shall we say, somewhat different.)

The obstacles and rewards they encounter along the way carve out new details in their personalities and in our perception of how actual men would react in equivalent situations. A discussion about the naming of a rock formation takes on an uncomfortable additional edge. Rowing (with impressive synchronization), capsizing, falling overboard, climbing down rock faces or climbing up ropes, and even battling the vicious local fauna gain an unusual sense of urgency—and, when one of them lets out an unmistakably female squeal, raw hilarity. The effect is greatly heightened, and the emotional connection in many ways deeper, once the assumed bravado and bolted-on machismo are nowhere to be found. Is this, at its essence, who and what these men were? Or, in some way, is it even more real?

Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Backhaus, director Will Davis, and the cast are all operating in perfect coordination to create a brief (95-minute) evening of unremitting adventure and craziness. The lush, picture-box scenery (by Arnulfo Maldonado), era-embracing costumes (Ásta Bennie Hostetter), and sweeping lighting (Solomon Weisbard) and sound (Jane Shaw) elaborate on what's there, but I'm not sure Men on Boats wouldn't be as effective were it done totally stripped down in a featureless black box. Keep the staging and the acting committed, and everything else is likely to work on its own.

Davis uses every nook and cranny of the theater to thrust you into a landscape of surprise that's as likely to reenvision an aisle as a river as it is a short length of rubber as deadly rattlesnake, all without ever letting it become cheap and gimmicky. And though McAndrew is a sterling standout as Powell, all Manifest Destiny puffed chest and damn-it-all carelessness, Kristen Sieh is practically as good as second-in-command Dunn, Donnetta Lavinia Grays plies even more understatement to even more riotous effect as the simple-pleasure-loving Civil War veteran Sumner, and Elizabeth Kenny spins with a dizzy ferocity the ancient trope of a trail-singing truth teller who, in this case, really doesn't know when to shut up. In any event, there are no weak links.

If the show has a flaw, it's the vaguest sense of potential pointlessness. Though some comparisons are inevitable to the Broadway hit Hamilton, which similarly refocuses an even earlier period in American history through a switched-up racial lens, that musical runs deeper with its concept and weaves it more tightly into its writing; aside from a pointed, if fairly genial, critique of the white-male Westward Expansion ethos, there's not much meat here, and Backhaus is never quite as good marshaling the drama as the comedy. When it's all over, it's tough not to shake a nagging "that's it" feeling.

Luckily, it's almost as hard to care that much. When the journey is an absolute blast, it's okay if the destination is only 8 out of 10. Men on Boats has more than enough brilliance to keep it afloat.

Men On Boats
Through August 14
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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