Prymate by Mark Medoff. Directed by Edwin Sherin. Scenic design by Robert Steinberg. Costume design by Colleen Muscha. Lighting design by Jeff Nellis. Sound design by Michael Smith. Cast: André de Shields, Phyllis Frelich, James Naughton, Heather Tom.
If Tony Awards were given to the male and female performers forced to endure the most quixotic whims a playwright could conjure in one play, André de Shields and Heather Tom would win the 2004 prizes.
All throughout Prymate, Mark Medoff's new play at the Longacre, de Shields and Tom are subjected to some of the most embarrassing and ridiculous tasks imaginable, though they meet their challenges with the kind of energy and enthusiasm on which Broadway is built. With de Shields capering about on various combinations of hands and feet to suggest his character (a gorilla named Graham), Tom's providing some the season's most gratuitous nudity, and the moments of unbridled intimacy the two of them share, the sacrifices Tom and de Shields make for their art in this show must test the limits of their endurance.
Just watching the play is something of a test of endurance for the audience, as well. Yet, for all that's misguided in Prymate, there actually is the germ of a provocative story longing to get out. And while we see very little of it during Prymate's intermissionless 100 minutes, Medoff at least makes sure that, while we're shocked, horrified, and amazed, we're never, ever bored. That's some consolation.
So is Phyllis Frelich, in the play's central role of the animal-loving scientist, Esther. The talented actress, who won a 1980 Tony for her performance in Medoff's Children of a Lesser God, was seen earlier this season in a supporting role in the Deaf West/Roundabout revival of Big River. Prymate returns Frelich to center stage where she belongs, and despite the show's other problems, her role is a good one that makes prodigious use of her gifts.
She has plenty of opportunities to connect with others - whether human or primate - as the deaf Esther. The first five or so minutes of the show are devoted to establishing her relationship with Graham, who also communicates in American Sign Language, in the makeshift residence they share in the wilderness of southwestern New Mexico. They speak and even dance together, obviously sharing a very close friendship.
This relationship is threatened with the arrival of Avrum (James Naughton), Esther's colleague and former lover, who has come with his interpreter Allison (Tom) to reclaim Graham. On a quest for a Nobel Prize, he wants to further his use of Graham for drug research, possibly in hopes of finding a cure for AIDS. But Esther is fiercely protective of Graham - who is now 31 and dying from emphysema and bronchitis - and, seeing him as her adopted child, wants him kept alive as long as possible.
Medoff's basic idea, and the set-up for this battle, is solid; his execution is much weaker. He tries to do much, and has three potentially intriguing ideas competing for stage time: the AIDS plot, Allison's use of sign language as a way of hiding her real self, and the concept of a human actor playing a gorilla with no costume to hide his human features. This dilutes all the stories too much to make them dramatically ineffective, and Medoff is reduced to telegraphing certain surprise plot points so loudly, that he should worry about retribution from Western Union.
It's not surprising that Medoff wants to portray Graham as possessing more humanity than the human characters, and it could work under the right conditions. But in Prymate, this concept culminates in a couple of silly conflicts between alpha males Graham and Avrum, and a primal sex scene between Nom and Naughton that's only slightly less titillating than the moment when Graham urinates on Allison. (Yet another difficult moment for de Shields and Tom.) By that point, however, you've long understood that anything and everything goes, and Medoff is never afraid to deliver.
Director Edwin Sherin doesn't provide a great deal of assistance in preventing Prymate from degenerating into an unfocused, unwieldy mess; he seems more concerned with corralling his humans and gorilla into the appropriate places onstage than working to clarify and deepen the story once they arrive. One also wonders if, by cracking the whip, Sherin couldn't have shaved five or ten minutes off the show's running time - the pacing is sometimes almost deadly.
The physical production isn't much better: Colleen Muscha's solution for de Shields's costume was to outfit him in a T-shirt, shorts, and leather gloves and shoes; Jeff Nellis's lighting is generally non-descript, and, during one difficult transition late in the show, laughably ineffective; and Robert Steinberg's mountain-inspired set looks as if it was stolen from an illicit community theatre production of The Lion King.
The actors are all courageous for taking on their roles, and each proves compelling to watch for different reasons: Frelich for her easy performing style and compelling stage presence, Naughton for his valiant attempts to make an interesting character out of the underdeveloped Avrum, Tom for her game performance despite the humiliation her character endures, and de Shields for, well, playing a gorilla.
It must be said that de Shields's performance is as strong as anyone has the right to expect with this material. He's a marvelous physical performer, and his musical theatre skills serve him well here. He has had some help from Garon Michael, who apparently originated the role of Graham and receives one of the most unusual title-page Playbill credits ever: "Primate Behavioral Specialist."
Audiences at Prymate will certainly benefit from Michael's knowledge and contributions to de Shields's performance. They're just not likely to benefit from much else.