The Performers Review: Gag-worthy Gags about Porno on Broadway

Daniel Breaker and Cheyenne Jackson in The Performers on Broadway

Daniel Breaker and Cheyenne Jackson in The Performers on Broadway

As Chuck Wood, the aging porno star in “The Performers,” a Broadway comedy about the adult film industry featuring an A-list cast, Henry Winkler becomes sentimental when accepting an award from his peers: “You’ve opened your hearts and your legs to me.”
His speech is full of such show business clichés turned upside down, reflecting pornographers’ skewed world view, as imagined – and milked for humor — by David West Read, a young playwright making his Broadway debut. It was a play I found shocking, but not in the way you might assume.

David Lawson in "VCR Love" at Dixon Place

David Lawson in “VCR Love”

To help me keep an open mind about “The Performers,” I invited along David Lawson, who is himself a performer, although not that kind. His one-man show, “VCR Love,” tells the story of his teenage experiences with pornography and ponders how much the creation and consumption of pornography has changed since then. He has performed the show several times at Dixon Place, and will do an abbreviated version of it again this coming Friday, with free admission. It is modestly but genuinely amusing, illuminating, almost wholesome – everything, as it turned out, that David West Read’s “The Performers” is not.
David Lawson didn’t like “The Performers” either. He considered it “outdated” and “a vehicle for punch-lines” rather than a look “at actual people who work in a $57 billion worldwide industry.”
I’m not sure I would want to get to know actual porn people, but his reaction was mild compared to mine.
I was not shocked because of the subject matter or the story – a gathering in a Las Vegas hotel during the annual Adult Film Awards. Rather, as I watched “The Performers,” I wondered how writer Read and director Evan Cabnet, who had previously collaborated on the affecting drama about grief “The Dream of The Burning Boy,” could have produced a work so devoid of substance, taste, or authentic feeling, and why such a stellar cast had agreed to participate in it. The performers are by far the best thing about “The Performers.” Their delivery saves many a gag-worthy gag. Cheyenne Jackson in particular turns in a performance that’s nearly a miracle of alchemy, transforming a collection of bawdy jokes into a palpable character.
Jackson plays Mandrew, who has been nominated for Best Male Performer and is in the host hotel with his wife Peeps (Ari Graynor), who is up for an Adult Film award or two herself. Mandrew’s childhood friend Lee (Daniel Breaker) is also in the hotel. Lee is a reporter for the New York Post, and he is doing a story about Mandrew. The play opens with Mandrew in effect posing for Lee during an interview in his hotel room, his buff body nearly naked in a leather caveman outfit.
Mandrew: What is a porn star? Good question. That’s the first good question you’ve asked all day.
Lee: I didn’t actually ask that question
Mandrew: A porn star is somebody who excites you sexually but not emotionally. Ipso facto, I am not a porn star. I am a love star. I make love.
It is the only scene containing beefcake in the play (there is no cheesecake), and an exchange that one could see as establishing something of a theme.
In service to that theme, the playwright stretches credulity even further than the friend-interviewer setup by having Lee bring along to this pornographers’ gathering his childhood sweetheart, Sara (Alicia Silverstone), a high school teacher who recently became Lee’s fiancé.

Henry Winkler as an aging porn star in "The Performers" on Broadway

Henry Winkler as an aging porn star

Henry Winkler’s Chuck, who has a smaller role in the play than the publicity would have you believe, is competing with Mandrew for the award, but winds up being a benevolent father figure, dispensing wisdom and advice. Chuck’s scene with Mandrew, ruing his life’s choices and urging his young rival to do better, comes closest to a touching moment, thanks to the skill of the two actors.
Rounding out the cast is Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber), who recently had breast-enhancement surgery, something that greatly annoys her friend and colleague Peeps for reasons not worth explaining.
There is a plot of sorts: The porno couple and the straight couple both have spats and then make up, learning in the process what love really means. But (as David Lawson pointed out) “The Performers” is in reality just a vehicle for David Read’s gags, which seem to fall into three categories.
One category of jokes offers variations on how dumb the performers are. One of the running gags in the play, for example, is that Mandrew and his fellow porn stars keep on mistaking Lee’s place of employment as the New York Times, not the New York Post, but think the New York Times is a television show or a magazine with a centerfold. Making dumb funny was something done far more artfully in “Boogie Nights,” the 1997 movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, which starred Mark Wahlberg and looked with more depth and understanding at the porno industry of the 1970’s.
The second category of Read’s humor borrows from pornography’s own practice of giving a lewd twist to familiar mainstream names and titles. Mandrew once traveled to Germany to do a movie called Das Booty.
The third plays with the pornographers’ perspective on reality. Chuck Wood’s sentimental acceptance speech is only one of a slew of examples.
Much is made of Peeps being outraged because Mandrew kissed Sundown – they weren’t even shooting a sex scene together.
Mandrew: Baby, she was going through some shit. Her mom was in the hospital.
Peeps: My mom’s fucking dead. Where’s my fucking kiss on the lips?
When shortly afterwards Peeps tells Mandrew that she’s pregnant, he asks whether the baby is his. Of course, she replies indignantly. “Baby, you’ve fucked a lot of guys,” Mandrew defends himself. “I’ve been careful,” Peeps replies. “They always cum on my face.”
It is a testament to the skill of Ari Graynor’s delivery that this line brings down the house.
But it is instructive to point out that Graynor most recently performed on Broadway last year in “Honeymoon Motel,” the third and most disappointing of the ghastly comic triptych “Relatively Speaking.” Like that play, which was written by Woody Allen, “The Performers” ends with the characters one by one knocking on the door and entering the same hotel room, a pale imitation of some tired burlesque routine; you can almost hear the gears moving – and the result is mechanical, an empty exercise. (It’s fitting that even the set changes mechanically – a different pillow flips up, a new picture turns over on the wall — from one dull hotel room to one only slightly different and equally dull.)
Like Woody Allen, David West Read unmistakably has the gene for comedy, but that clearly doesn’t stop either of them from occasionally…mutating. In his short career as a dramatist Read has also shown the kind of feel for human beings that one can hope he’ll recover for his next play.

November 15 Update: The Performers is closing this coming Sunday, November 18, 2012, after 23 previews and 7 regular performances, the producers announced.

The cast of The Performers on Broadway, clockwise from top left: Henry Winkler, Jenni Barber, Ari Graynor, Cheyenne Jackson, Alicia Silverstone, Daniel Breaker

The Performers
Longacre Theater
Written by David West Read
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Set design by Anna Louizos, costume design by Jessica Wegener Shay, lighting by Jeff Crouter, sound by Nevin Steinberg
Cast: Cheyenne Jackson, Ari Graynor, Daniel Breaker, Jenni Barber, Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Buy tickets to The Performers

Twitter Badge (.gif)

About these ads

About Jonathan Mandell
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

2 Responses to The Performers Review: Gag-worthy Gags about Porno on Broadway

  1. Pingback: The Giant Mystery of Scandalous Performers, And Spike: The Week on Broadway « New York Theater

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Stories in 2012 on NewYorkTheater.Me « New York Theater

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,128 other followers

%d bloggers like this: