Oh, my. What is one to make of Mark Medoff's "Prymate," the strangest play of this waning Broadway season? Also, the most overwrought.
There are not many reflective moments in Medoff's unlikely drama, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre. Recrimination seems to be the main topic of conversation, whether that talk is spoken or delivered in American Sign Language.
Our combatants are two scientists: Esther, a deaf anthropologist (played by Phyllis Frelich), and Avrum, an ambitious geneticist (James Naughton) who has his eye on the Nobel Prize. At one time, they were lovers. Now, they just fight.
Their quarrel is over an aging, sickly, 350-pound gorilla named Graham, a creature spirited away by Esther and now living with her in the New Mexico wilderness. Avrum wants him back in the lab where he can use the animal in AIDS research. Esther has bigger dreams for the ape; she has taught him a bit of sign language.
What makes all this more than a little unusual is that Graham is played by a black actor, Andre De Shields, best known for his roles in such musicals as "The Wiz" and "Ain't Misbehavin'."
At first, it's startling and more than a bit unnerving to see De Shields grunt, grimace and then scamper around the stage on all fours, perpetuating what could be mistaken for racial stereotypes. Yet the actor, dressed in a dark T-shirt and shorts and wearing black leather shoes and gloves, artfully shucks off such hateful images.
De Shields has always had a graceful presence, and he uses his innate physicality and gift for mime to bring the gorilla to life.
Alas, Medoff, author of the Tony-winning "Children of a Lesser God" and "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder," has more on his mind in director Edwin Sherin's hyper, melodramatic production.
Among other things, "Prymate" wants to be taken seriously as a debate about the ethics of animal testing, but the arguments start at such a high pitch that they have nowhere to go - except up in decibel level.
The play's more thought-provoking aspects are forever overwhelmed by the plot's sudsier aspects, which includes the introduction of an interpreter named Allison (Heather Tom). She's a nubile young woman with innumerable body piercings and a wild past that plays an important role in the evening's ludicrous conclusion.
Allison has come along to translate Esther's signings for Avrum and gets caught in their bitter crossfire. She also attracts the attention of Graham, whose advances, at one point, get quite sexual. Their resolution can't be described here. Let's just say we've come a long way from the days of King Kong and Fay Wray.
Medoff's dialogue is unsubtle, often crude and, what's worse, unbelievable.
Naughton gives a blustery performance as the unlikable Avrum, and Frelich is equally agitated as Esther. Tom seems stymied by her preposterous role, which is more plot point than real person. Only DeShields manages to maintain his dignity. He's the most human creature in this theatrically primitive "Prymate."
In nearly three decades of professional theatergoing, I don't think I've ever seen a play worse than Mark Medoff's "Prymate."
Admittedly, and to my eternal regret, I missed "Moose Murders."
But, reportedly, that at least provided amusement. "Prymate" just stuns you with its awfulness.
A deaf scientist (Phyllis Frelich), who once had an affair with her power-hungry boss (James Naughton), has taken a gorilla he has infected with the AIDS virus from the laboratory. She and the gorilla (Andre de Shields), which she has taught American Sign Language, hide out in the desert near Santa Fe.
The evil scientist has tracked them down and arrives with a young woman (Heather Tom) more fluent in ASL than he to lure his former colleague and the emphysema-afflicted ape back to the lab, where he will perform further experiments.
Are you still with me?
The plot grows increasingly grotesque as the characters turn on one another. At one point, the ape "marks" the interpreter and (for reasons not entirely clear) forces her to masturbate him. By the end of the play, all but one of the characters have AIDS.
The play was done a few months ago on a college campus, where doubtless its B-movie plot materials passed for daring. Most of its plot turns are merely disgusting, and the fact that it was whisked from Tallahassee, Fla., to Broadway is an indication of how desperate producers are.
Director Ed Sherin's amateurish production does nothing to improve Medoff's crude script.
Naughton plays the scientist who is bent on winning a Nobel Prize less like an idealist than a swaggering salesman aiming for a free trip to the Poconos if he sells the most cars.
De Shields uses his skills as a dancer to make the ape graceful. (Let's not even go into the issue of whether an African-American should be cast in such a role.)
When she won a Tony in Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" 24 years ago, there was something novel about Frelich's performing in sign language. Not being able to speak, however, fairly forces her to exaggerate all her emotional responses, which quickly proves wearing.
The play makes no sense when she and the interpreter, convincingly played by Tom, sign their conversation and Tom must translate it for the audience's benefit.
To call it a play dignifies what is merely an irritating piling-on of outrages. Sometimes you have to struggle to find just the right word to describe a piece of theater. In this case, it's easy:
The word is "atrocious."
The 2003/2004 Broadway season officially closed last night with the arrival of Mark Medoff's "Prymate" at the Longacre Theatre.
Apparently, they saved the worst till last.
There have been worse plays on Broadway - "Moose Murders" comes to mind, and something about 35 years ago called "Fire." Or perhaps it was "Fever." Whatever.
But "Prymate" - presumably an exposition of the rights of animals as opposed to the rights of human beings, a worthy enough subject - gets no serious discussion in a play as ramshackle and doomed as a grass hut in a hurricane.
Medoff is best known for his forceful, Tony Award-winning drama, "Children of a Lesser God," which, like "Prymate," starred the deaf actress Phyllis Frelich.
In "Prymate" she plays a deaf-mute anthropologist who, in the wilderness of New Mexico, has taught a gorilla named Graham (Andre De Shields) to communicate, moderately well, in American Sign Language.
Her former lover, Avrum (James Naughton), a medical researcher seeking a cure for AIDS, has a private detective track down the place where she and Graham are hiding out.
Accompanied by Allison (Heather Tom), a comely sign-language translator, Avrum arrives, bearing a sixpack of beer as a peace offering, at the adobe house where Esther and her remarkably tame, if occasionally savage, gorilla live in peace.
Avrum has a hidden motive: He wants to take Graham back to town for his AIDS research. Avrum also has a secret: When all three were living together, Avrum, for research purposes, infected Graham with HIV.
The plot gets crazier as it thickens. Suffice it to say that eventually the biter gets bit.
The illogicality and questionable science involved is manifest. The play is not merely stymied by its theme but by the fact that virtually the whole story has to be spun out both in sign language and the neutral monotonous voice of translation.
Edwin Sherin, a director of distinction, can make little sense of this farrago, originally produced by the Florida State University School of Theater in Tallahassee, where, perhaps not by chance, Medoff teaches.
The unattractive and cluttered setting is by Robert Steinberg, who happens to be Frelich's husband, and the anonymously styled costumes are by Colleen Muscha.
The actors do their best; they always do. De Shields makes a noble gorilla in the mists of Medoff's creation, sustaining with surprising dignity simulated scenes of urination and masturbation.
As for Frelich - she is an actress of smiling charm and enormous passion made all the more enormous by having to be expressed in flailing sign language.
The normally doughty and admirable Naughton looked lost but game as the AIDS researcher, yet Heather Tom (who's won two Emmys for her role in "The Young and the Restless") stood up to the slings and arrows of the play with fortitude.
But why bother? "Prymate" is not prime time. And shouldn't it be "Primate"? Unless the title is meant as a pun, as in "prying mate."
If so, the pun is as bad as the play, and almost as silly.
What is going on when a play stuffed with crises, controversies, and sex -- from anxious jokes about big breasts and small penises to simulated masturbation -- leaves one feeling dull and almost indifferent?
Mark Medoff's ''Prymate'' opened last night at the Longacre Theater amid a mild furor caused by casting a black actor as a gorilla who sexually assaults a young blond woman. I wish the play's craft and intellect equaled its knack for publicity and its earnest but confused ambitions.
Of the passion-stirring issues ''Prymate'' takes up, the most genuinely affecting is the relationship between humans and animals. Are they to be treated as lower species and used as we see fit? Or are we just starting to learn the intricacies of their intelligence, their emotions, their capacities?
Mr. Medoff also looks at AIDS, the ethics of scientific experiments, masculine sexual violence and feminine sexual vengeance. He and his director, Edwin Sherin, handle each with a dogged realism and sudden bouts of heavy symbolism.
The first few moments of the play unfold in silence. We see the gorilla (played with real physical acuteness, even delicacy, by André De Shields) and a woman (Phyllis Frelich) in a rocky camp. They speak in sign language. He makes a series of small sounds (inquiry, acquiescence) that advance the conversation. They even do a little swing dancing. Enter the tall, white-haired, brazenly self-assured Avrum (James Naughton) and the nervous, much younger Allison (Heather Tom) in a black pantsuit that shows how out of place she is in the wilderness of New Mexico. They are searching for Esther (the woman) and Graham (the gorilla).
Esther and Avrum are important scientists who once shared a lab and a life. He is a geneticist looking for the cure for AIDS, and for the Nobel Prize. To that end he has been infecting chimpanzees with H.I.V. Esther is a linguist and anthropologist, doing important work with autistic children and the mentally disabled.
Avrum considers everything in the lab his property, from instruments to animals. Esther considers Graham, who has been with her for 23 years, her ''moral and maternal responsibility.'' When Avrum decides to use Graham in his experiments, Esther rebels and runs off to the wilderness with the aging gorilla. Now Avrum has tracked her down and they argue fiercely over scientific ethics and the rights and wrongs of their affair. But they must argue through Allison, a sign language interpreter, for Esther is a deaf-mute -- ''the first deafie to get a Ph.D from Stanford,'' as she says bitterly. (Ms. Frelich, a founding member of the National Theater of the Deaf, played the leading role in Mr. Medoff's Tony-winning play, ''Children of a Lesser God.'')
When Graham re-enters, he is wary of Avrum, and drawn to Allison. Multiple conversation channels are set going. Graham and Esther sign and make sounds. Allison signs and talks. Avrum talks, shouts and occasionally signs. This is theatrically interesting. Subtle writing and supple direction would have made it fascinating.
Mr. De Shields is a resourceful actor. It is touching to watch Graham sign carefully with Esther then lope about gracefully and pause to listen for sounds we can't hear. The urination and masturbation scene between Graham and Allison is a set-up; not literally unbelievable but shamelessly manipulative. We are watching a man pretending to be an ape assault a woman in ways that men often do.
How could we not be upset, and how could there not be more layers of discomfort or distress when the actor looks so African and the woman looks so Nordic?
In terms of plot, everything comes down to power, desire and revenge in the most primal way. It all feels predestined. Allison's youth and sensuality must stir Esther's envy and Avrum's vanity. Avrum and Esther must hate and love each other with equally intensity. Graham and Allison must re-enact a more literate but literal version of that fatal encounter between King Kong and Fay Wray's Ann Darrow.
There are some welcome complications. Esther is an intelligent, strong-willed scientist after all; that's still a fresh character in drama. Ms. Frelich makes us feel these qualities. Still, I wish she weren't inclined to make her enthusiasm a little pert and her anger a little coy in a girlish, hands-on-hips-head-tossing way. Was there some unease on part of director and actress about the leading woman being thoroughly unglamorous and middle aged?
Mr. Naughton is brash and highhanded; neither incompetent nor surprising. Ms. Tom has been involved with this play since its premiere in Florida last February. But most of her work has been done in television. Her voice is small, and her emotions feel small even when they are supposed to take on a sudden fearsome power.
After the urination and masturbation scene, Mr. Medoff offers one more plot twist that is meant to invert this all-too-familiar scenario. It is just as manipulative, and pretty threadbare in its own right. And then, after working so hard to be bold, he settles for a safe conventional ending.
I hope ''Prymate'' does the animal rights movement some good. I wish it did more for theatergoers.
Historians, please note: Whatever other generalizations will be made about the strange Broadway trajectory of 2003-04, let the record show that the season began last July with deaf and hearing actors using American Sign Language in a musical revival of "Big River." And that the season officially closed last night with deaf and hearing actors signing again, this time in "Prymate," Mark Medoff’s 90-minute oddity that, along with more dubious distinctions, appears to be Broadway's first play about animal rights.
As someone who belongs to the Gorilla Foundation and receives newsletter transcriptions of Koko's signed conversations about her cat, my impulse is to cut this misadventure some slack. I will resist that impulse.
Before "Prymate" made the trip from Florida State University in Tallahassee to the Longacre Theatre, news focused on the brow-raising casting of Andre De Shields, the Tony Award-winning black actor, as a gorilla. This double-dare challenge to racial stereotyping may turn out to be the least controversial element of the play.
De Shields, who was nurtured in Grotowski-based pre-verbal physicality at Chicago's Organic Theater during the 1960s, knows precisely what he's doing, and he does it with grand conviction. What's offensive is Medoff’s use of AIDS as a plot mechanism, a gimmick used merely to propel the story of damaged love between Esther, a linguistic anthropologist who has trained Graham the gorilla for 23 years, and Avrum, a research geneticist who tracks them down in their New Mexico hideout.
The doctor wants to bring Graham back to his lab to be a primate model for work on an AIDS vaccine. This is far from the worst either/or conflict we have encountered in a play. But Medoff, who won the 1980 Tony Award for his breakthrough deaf drama, "Children of a Lesser God," drops that issue without really exploring it. He exploits AIDS via a secret injection and a secret infection, as if it were just another weapon to be used in an adventure story.
Phyllis Frelich, who won a Tony for "Children" and signed as Miss Watson in "Big River," has a frizzy-haired, strong-willed presence as Esther, the raunchy, middle-aged scientist who rescued Graham from the lab to become a happy recluse with him, despite the aging simian's emphysema. In Edwin Sherin's tender, energetic staging on a handsome yellow plateau designed by Robert Steinberg, she and Graham sign, practice ballroom dance and adore one another.
Lucky for everyone, the obnoxious scientist is played by James Naughton, one of the most charming actors ever to play a cad. (He originated the role of the slick lawyer in the hit "Chicago" revival.) All of Naughton's flair cannot save a character more interested in winning the Nobel Prize than saving lives and who, incredibly, says he has never met anyone with AIDS.
Anyone believe this? Esther and Avrum are former lovers, though the heat between them appears to be based primarily on physical pain. He arrives with a signing translator (Heather Tom) who looks like Hemingway and has a secret that conveniently relates to the crisis at hand.
When the soaper plot gets too annoying, we take pleasure in De Shields. No gorilla suits for this guy. Wearing simple brown Besmuda shorts and a shirt (costumes by Colleen Muscha), he walks on knuckles covered by leather gloves and balances on toes covered by soft boxer shoes. He is convincing when Graham urinates on the new girl as a sexual gesture. He also makes a persuasive sound of gorilla orgasm. Best we ever heard on Broadway.
Call out the bomb squad! Connoisseurs of see-it-or-regret-it theatrical disasters will want to make tracks to the Longacre Theater, and fast, to catch "Prymate," the last and the least of the season's Broadway offerings. Mark Medoff's woozy play mixes a supposedly probing animal-rights and medical-ethics debate with a tale of love and lust among an oddly assorted social set: two middle-aged scientists (one deaf), a comely sign-language interpreter and a horny gorilla. Or was it an ape? Whatever. Aiming earnestly at provocative, "Prymate" is merely -- and yet spectacularly -- ludicrous.
The set by Robert Steinberg, depicting a strangely well-appointed outpost in "the wilderness of southwestern New Mexico," appears to be an exact replica of a faux habitat in a natural history museum, built to showcase the latest in the taxidermist's art. This proves to be unexpectedly apt, for while they are a lot more animated than the stuffed inhabitants of such climes, the humans in "Prymate" are hardly more lifelike. A play is in serious trouble when the most sensitively written character onstage moves on all fours and has a vocabulary of about 400 signed words.
This would be Graham, the gorilla played by Andre de Shields, who has been saved from the perils of scientific research by his loving caretaker Esther (Phyllis Frelich). Esther, "the famous linguist-anthropologist," essentially kidnapped Graham from the lab of her ex-lover, Avrum (James Naughton), an AIDS researcher. (One must conclude that Simian Workers Local 1 was asleep at the wheel as poor Graham was being conscripted for double duty in the realm of science.)
The cozy little domestic menage established by Graham and Esther is threatened when Avrum arrives from over the bluff, seeking to drag the primate back to the lab and Esther back to bed.
Since Esther is hearing-impaired and Graham communicates only through his limited repertoire of signs (including one for "foreplay," I'm here to tell you), Avrum has, fortunately for the audience, brought along Allison (Heather Tom) to interpret for all. Then again, perhaps it's not so fortunate; the play would be more palatable for the hearing members of the audience if Medoff's coarse-grained dialogue were not actually spoken. It is hardly improved by the monotone delivery of Tom, a TV soap actress.
Like it or not, Tom laboriously translates every last, limp witticism in the interplay between Esther and Avrum, which moves in sitcomic fashion from feisty antagonism to shared remembrances of their past. It also takes in some seriously strange byways: Folks itching to learn the sign language for useful queries such as "Whose toes did I suck?" and "What happened to that leopard-skin thong I bought you?" have come to the right show.
But such tender intimacies are only intermittent. Perhaps due to her co-habitation with another species, Esther appears to have picked up some strange habits: She greets her ex by giving his hand a fierce bite, and later engages in her preferred brand of foreplay by squeezing his nipples until he yelps. Meantime, Graham takes a shine to Allison, although his social skills aren't much more polished than Esther's. "Want touch breast girl," he signs, shortly after they are introduced.
One of Medoff's ambitions is, clearly, to examine how mating rituals of these two species both diverge and coalesce, to dissect those dark urges that unite all species. Given that the various couplings exhibited here -- Esther and Avrum, Avrum and Allison, and, yes, Graham and Allison -- are all about as erotically stimulating as a Levitra commercial, the natural conclusion is that both species should just give up the nasty business, forthwith.
Nor are the play's intellectual discussions invigorating. Medoff presumably wants us to think hard about the moral dilemmas inherent in the use of animals for scientific research. But, aside from fur-hating PETA freaks who are likely to be the play's only sympathetic aud, few would concur with Esther's bold assertion that the search for an AIDS cure is as nothing weighed against the prospect of curtailing the golden years of one asthmatic gorilla. "Should his research be more important than mine?" she whines to Allison. "Take the $100 million a year spent on AIDS research and convince stupid goddamn human beings to use clean needles and condoms."
Then again, the Nobel-hungry Avrum isn't the most persuasive spokesman for the value of AIDS research either, given as he is to ruminating thusly: "Sometimes I wonder if AIDS is nature's way of dealing with human folly since we're unable -- or won't -- do it ourselves. If the species is to survive past the midpoint of this new century, there will have to be selective genocide."
With scientists like these, who needs fundamentalists?
As befits a play of such flagrantly muddled ideas, the plot takes a series of increasingly sensational turns that are too deliciously absurd to disclose. And director Edwin Sherin's cast delivers them each with the theatrical equivalent of a straight face -- although Frelich, a Tony winner for Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," mugs so insistently that her face is all too rarely immobile. It's a sadly strained performance, in bewildering contrast to her far subtler work, on a smaller scale, in the season's earlier revival of "Big River," featuring both deaf and hearing actors.
But none of the performers escapes with dignity fully intact here. Certainly not Naughton, who gives a performance so wooden you half expect Graham to start stripping the bark off to make a meal of him.
Pre-opening controversy has, of course, focused on the disquieting implications of an African-American actor portraying a gorilla. And the sight of de Shields scampering around on hands and knees, screeching shrilly, is indeed initially unsettling. But he must be given credit for the perf's persuasiveness and integrity -- even if there are a few occasions on which this gorilla evinces suspiciously well-honed comic instincts. And to take offense at de Shields' casting is like complaining that you're seasick when the ship is sinking.