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The Performers (11/14/2012 - 11/18/2012)


AP: "Broadway's 'The Performers' is a sweet look at love despite its porn world setting"

Most of the jokes from the new Broadway comedy “The Performers” cannot appear in a family newspaper. The world of adult films doesn’t lend itself to cleanliness.

But here’s one of the few that can be quoted from David West Read’s script:

Do you like White Russians?” one porn star asks another at a bar.

“Sure,” comes the reply. “I like white Russians, I like black Russians, I like half-Russians...”

The funny thing is that the show has a pure heart and a traditional feel-good message despite the waving of adult toys, simulated sex acts and language that would trigger a seizure in a network censor. Read has somehow found sweetness in porn.

Starring Cheyenne Jackson, Ari Graynor, Daniel Breaker, Jenni Barber with Alicia Silverstone and Henry Winkler, “The Performers” opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre. It’s the tale of two couples struggling with grass-is-always-greener issues.

Jackson and Graynor play married adult film stars who naturally have monogamy issues. Breaker and Silverstone play a slightly bored couple — he a journalist writing about the porn world and she a school teacher — who have a conventional sex life. When they role play, she plays a school teacher.

At a hotel in Las Vegas on the night of the Adult Film Awards, both couples learn what really matters. Their searching is aided by Winkler, who plays a veteran porn star named Chuck Wood and his extremely enhanced gal pal Sundown LeMay, portrayed by Barber.

Director Evan Cabnet has aimed at, and struck, the tender heart in a script that could easily be performed with more darkness or more cartoony. The great cast — especially a squeaky, muddle-headed Graynor and zesty Winkler — keeps the show giggling.

Comic timing is in rich supply here but also compassion. Breaker’s eyes bulge like Marty Feldman when he gets bewildered and Barber shows the lost girl inside her airhead doll. Though Silverstone sometimes gets lines muddled, she still nails her character’s worry and need.

Jackson plays his alpha porn star Mandrew — who with his ponytail and bravado resembles Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” — as trying-too-hard to appear smart but with a well of kindness beneath the facade. He impressively does that wearing very little, without any self-consciousness. He’s the closest anyone onstage gets to naked, if you were wondering.

Anna Louizos’ sets are ingenious. The action switches between two hotel rooms and the lobby bar and Louizos makes small details like the paintings and pillows on the bed switch to indicate the two suites. You’d expect not too much thought in terms of costumes for a play about porn, but Jessica Wegener Shay’s over-the-top maroon sequined dress for Graynor and a ‘70s white suit for Winkler hit the spot.

Stripped bare — sorry, puns are hard to avoid here — “The Performers” reveals a simple and not-so-provocative message. Winkler’s experienced character makes it clear: “If love is involved, there’s always a compromise.” The fact that it is spoken by an expletive-spewing porn star just adds a little spice to it.


New York Daily News: "The Performers"

There are huge boobs in the porn-themed play “The Performers,” which opened Wednesday at the Longacre.

That’s not only a reference to one character’s Double-G fake jugs, but to all the dimwits dreamed up by playwright David West Read. Everyone in the limp comedy hails from the planet Stupid.

Nothing wrong with that, but it takes real smarts to make dumb people funny. A string of easy puns and double entendres and faux XX-film titles like “Spontaneass” aren’t enough to elevate this beyond a raunchy extended skit.

Don’t read that as prudishness. It’s disappointment that in his Broadway debut, Read (“The Dream of the Burning Boy”) comes up with so few surprises.

Set in present-day Las Vegas, the story unfolds at the Adult Film Awards. Skin-flick actors Mandrew (Cheyenne Jackson) and his wife, Peeps (Ari Graynor), are both nominees.

Lee (Daniel Breaker), a journalist, is writing a profile of Mandrew, his former high school bud. Along for the ride is Lee’s fiancee, Sara (Alicia Silverstone).

As scenes move from bedrooms to bar, both couples hit speed bumps in their relationships. Aging porn pro Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler) and Peeps’ newly augmented rival, Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber), don’t help matters.

Read has the germ of a good idea. The last people you’d expect to offer lessons on intimacy, commitment and love are porn actors.

But people aren’t just what they do. That’s one of the themes in the play. Ironically, Read’s porn stars only talk about sex and the message turns murky.

Director Evan Cabnet and six actors who are game for anything make the most of the material.

Jackson, who’s best known for Broadway musicals, shows off a sculpted physique and chiseled comic chops. Graynor, seen recently as a sex-line lady in “For a Good Time Call,” is hilarious channeling Jennifer Tilly’s gravelly voice. Barber beams sweetness big as her prosthetic breasts.

Breaker’s facial expressions tell an eloquent story, while Silverstone is cute as the girlfriend questioning marriage and forever.

Winkler, the veteran member of the cast, could loosen up as Wood. But if the actor formerly known as Fonzie was trying to erase his family-friendly “Happy Days” image, mission accomplished.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "XXX 'Performers' flaccid"

In case you were wondering: No, an avalanche of lewd double-entendres and sex jokes isn’t enough to carry a comedy — you still need trivial things like, oh, a plot and characters.

David West Read seems to think that setting his Broadway debut, “The Performers,” in the world of porn is hilarious in and of itself. So the show never bothers with anything besides raunchy wisecracks that get less and less funny as the evening wears on. Thank God the production features a spot-on cast that includes Henry Winkler, Cheyenne Jackson and Alicia Silverstone.

The action takes place in a Vegas hotel during the Adult Film Awards. A (fictitious) New York Post reporter named Lee (Daniel Breaker) is in town to write a profile of an old schoolmate who’s up for Best Male Performer.

Jackson is just the right amount of hunky, sweet and vapid as Lee’s pal, who now goes by Mandrew. He’s married to a fellow XXX thespian, the equally dim-witted but loving Peeps (Ari Graynor).

Read wrings a lot of would-be laughs from the contrast between the sexually liberated Mandrew and Peeps and the straitlaced Lee and his milquetoast high-school sweetheart, Sara (Silverstone). Let’s just say the last pair’s flavor of choice is vanilla.

Thrown into the mix are veteran stud Chuck Wood (Winkler), who’s been at it since 1978, and Peeps’ busty frenemy, Sundown (Jenni Barber). “They call me Sundown because I go down,” she explains. “Like the sun.”

Like most of the show’s jokes, this zinger relies on “porno speak,” in which everything has a sexual meaning.

“Let’s blow this joint,” Sara tells Chuck, who replies, “Yeah, and if you’re lucky, I’ll let you blow my joint!”

Read also delivers the obligatory fake porn titles, like “I Ate Chinese and Now I’m Hungry Again” and “Spontaneass” — which the playwright loves so much, he uses it three times.

Under Evan Cabnet’s direction, the cast throws itself into the contrived situations and dialogue with impressive zest and panache.

As Jackson showed us in “Xanadu,” he’s peerless when it comes to playing goofy-sexy naiveté. Here he has a great match in Graynor, whose arch comic timing is so precise, you could set your watch by it. Breaker — equally good as Donkey in “Shrek” and the young lead in “Passing Strange” — makes a masterful straight man. And Winkler is oddly endearing as the porn world’s wise elder.

If only this gifted gang had more to work with than Read’s witless lines, moralistic streak and condescension for his characters, especially the women. Not everybody in porn is clueless: Just ask Sasha Grey. Yet Mandrew, Peeps and Sundown are airheads who make up for their minuscule brains with oversize endowments and hearts of gold.

Which, in the end, turns out to be key, since “The Performers” argues that love is what matters in life, if not in adult films. At Broadway prices, this greeting-card wisdom doesn’t come cheap.

New York Post

New York Times: "Innocents Abroad in a Land of Naked Ambition"

“The Performers” offers proof positive that it’s possible to talk real dirty and still be the squarest show in town. Even in a season featuring two works by a king of Anglo-Saxon expletives like David Mamet, this comedy by David West Read may well clock the most obscenities per minute of any play on Broadway. Nonetheless Mr. Read’s perky account of innocents in porn land, centered on a film awards presentation in Las Vegas, feels like a throwback to the more discreetly risqué entertainments of 40 and 50 years ago. Though its author is only 29, “The Performers” is like an early Neil Simon farce with an X-rated vocabulary, or a blue-tongued episode of the smirky but sentimental TV series “Love American Style.”

In those days middle-class audiences — alarmed and titillated by the loud groans of a sexual counterculture it couldn’t ignore — found reassurance in stage and screen fare that skirted the wild side but wound up nestled down by the family hearth.

The plots of such diversions often involved cozy, button-down couples who had started to wonder if there was more to life than twin beds and the missionary position. Usually, a clean-cut husband or wife (or both) would get drunk and go a little crazy before concluding, like Dorothy in Oz, that there’s no place like home after all.

That’s more or less the formula for “The Performers,” which opened on Wednesday night at the Longacre Theater in a production directed by Evan Cabnet. Lee (Daniel Breaker), a journalist, and Sara (Alicia Silverstone), a schoolteacher, are finally going to tie the knot after years of contented togetherness. The rub, though, is that in their entire lives they have had sex only with each other. Could they be missing out on something?

The answers are waiting in Vegas, where Lee has been dispatched by The New York Post to write a profile on a rising porn star whom he happens to have known in high school. That hunky, dimwitted friend of yore is now going by the name Mandrew, and the good news is that he is played by Cheyenne Jackson, a master of finding goofy charm in salacious innocence.

More good news! Mandrew’s wife and sometime co-star, Peeps (short for Pussy Boots), is played by Ari Graynor, who turns out to be Mr. Jackson’s ideal comic match. In endowing cartoon characters, whose punch lines are visible long before they land, with something like sincerity and spontaneity, these two work wonders. Unfortunately, with “The Performers,” wonders soon cease.

The show, which also features Jenni Barber as a starlet called Sundown (for reasons you can infer) and Henry Winkler as a very old hand in the business named Chuck Wood, raises mild hopes in its opening scene. Lee is interviewing Mandrew, who’s assuming he’ll win big at the awards ceremony that night for his performance in a movie whose title — last time I checked with my editors — can only be paraphrased here. (Let’s call it “Planet of the Mammary Glands.”)

The sight of Mr. Jackson in a suede bikini in a gumdrop-colored hotel room is certainly some demented eye candy. (Anna Louizos is the set designer, and Jessica Wegener Shay must have enjoyed herself creating the costumes.) And when Mandrew starts to talk about using “Where’s Waldo?” as an erotic aid, or enlists Lee to help him act out a scene from his movie, you may think optimistically, “Hey, you’re not really going there, are you?”

That thought will recur, but less happily, many times during this show’s intermissionless 90 minutes. For it soon becomes clear that “The Performers” is going to the planet of second-tier sitcoms.

The script is spiced heavily with the punning innuendoes of which porn movies — both their titles and their dialogue — are made, a form of wordplay that remains a schoolboy’s delight. One exchange: “Can we talk in private?” “We can talk about Chuck’s privates!”

Though the humor is partly rooted in our awareness of how puerile such talk is, a little of it goes a long way. So does comedy based on characters’ limited literacy and attention spans, which suggests those blonde jokes that were once the rage, just aimed at porn stars instead.

“The Performers” reaches its heights, which are mostly foothills, when it follows the internal logic of porn-speak to absurdist extremes. Mr. Jackson and Ms. Graynor are best at giving earnest voice (and body) to this logic, though Mr. Winkler is pretty amusing when Chuck accepts an award saying, “You’ve opened your hearts and your legs to me.”

Ms. Barber brings a vanilla sweetness to her top-heavy, artificially constructed character. Mr. Breaker and Ms. Silverstone do what they can with the thankless roles of straight man and woman. (To Ms. Silverstone falls the unfortunate task of getting drunk and shaking a tail feather.)

The show also has a running motif about people wondering what it would be like to switch places with one another, as the mother and daughter do in the movie “Freaky Friday.” But they don’t really need to, because no matter how much skin they choose to show in public, they’re all the same underneath it.

“I just want to be me and be O.K. with it and have everybody else be O.K. with it,” Sara says toward the play’s end. She also observes that “sometimes you can’t have sex in a German dungeon; sometimes you have to be an old married couple, rubbing Vicks VapoRub into each other.” And sometimes even the raciest references can’t disguise a message straight out of a fortune cookie.

New York Times

Newsday: "Porn comedy"

Since theater is meant to stimulate questions, here are a few inspired by "The Performers," a new comedy about the porn industry.

Who on the chart of humanoids are these people? Why are we supposed to care about them? Does anybody really think they are funny? Finally, what in the world are they doing on Broadway? (Or, if they belong there, what does that say about us?)

There must be a way to say this without sounding prim. "The Performers," which finds a game but miscast Henry Winkler and a sweet Alicia Silverstone in Vegas at the Adult Film Awards, is not shocking because of the nonstop use of playground dirty words or because of its unblinking attitude toward its tired subject matter.

It is shocking because it is so idiotic. This is the Broadway debut for playwright David West Read and director Evan Cabnet, a team whose sensitive and provocative "The Dream of the Burning Boy" introduced them at the tiny but fertile Roundabout Underground. Such devolution is also shocking.

Described in press material as a romantic comedy, this is a more explicit update on what, in the unlamented heyday of the dinner circuit, was called a sex farce. Earlier than that, this was burlesque. Even as a 10-minute burlesque skit, however, the material in this 90-minute embarrassment would seem skimpy.

Besides the alleged thrill of hearing semifamous people talk raunch, "Performers" has a slick production smarter than its mentality. It has Broadway's most endearing and intelligent hunk, Cheyenne Jackson, as Mandrew, the idealistically ambitious porn star who, not incidentally, spends almost of the first third of the evening in a loincloth.

Mandrew is married to Peeps, a similarly committed co-worker whose idea of jealousy is when he kisses another woman and when her colleague (Jenni Barber) gets humongous fake breasts without telling her. Ari Graynor plays Peeps with such heartfelt, sublime vulgarity that we can only wish her better.

On the weekend of the awards, Mandrew's high school buddy (poor Daniel Breaker) arrives to write a feature on him -- "Porn Star Makes It Big" -- for a New York tabloid. The journalist brings his high school sweetheart, now his fiancee (Silverstone). Soon the innocents will wonder if they are missing something.

Winkler -- rumpled lifetimes away from The Fonz -- plays aging superstar Chuck Wood. If you can picture that, you don't need me.


USA Today: "Love and porn in Las Vegas"

For all the under-served talent in Broadway's The Performers (* *½ out of four), the production boasts one indisputable stroke of casting genius.

In David West Read's new play, which opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre, Henry Winkler appears as Chuck Wood, an aging porn star given to crowing about his, um, sizable credentials. Thus the actor who, as Fonzie on the '70s TV smash Happy Days, defined effortless cool for a generation of pre-adolescents turns up as a has-been stud trying way too hard to sustain his youthful glory.

It's crass genius, of course; but what else would you expect from a play set around the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas? It is here, at a hotel, that Chuck encounters his younger rival — a guy who calls himself Mandrew — and some female colleagues. Mandrew's straight-laced high school buddy is also in town, accompanied by his demurely pretty fiancée, to profile his old classmate for a New York tabloid.

A very funny play could likely be written involving these people and circumstances, but I suspect it would include less conversation. Certainly, it would feature less of the dialogue that Read offers here, which aims primarily to show us, over and over again, how dimwitted and base his title characters are — only to turn around and ask us to care about them, and maybe learn a little something from their off-camera dramas.

The trials are predictable: Mandrew and his wife and fellow performer, Peeps (short for "Pussy Boots"), worry about their careers; and she grows jealous of his love scenes, particularly after learning that one surgically enhanced blonde kissed him — a sign of true and deep affection in their industry, apparently. The journalist, Lee, and his math-teacher girlfriend, Sara, alternately fret about being too boring and staying monogamous.

Throughout, there are endless references to body parts and all manner of sexual activity. Some are amusing, but those who are more discriminating about penis and masturbation jokes may find the barrage of hit-or-miss material tedious after a while.

Luckily, the cast is game, and director Evan Cabnet keeps the proceedings light and relatively fast-paced. Physically, the role of Mandrew fits musical-theater hunk Cheyenne Jackson like a pair of skintight briefs, and he clearly has fun with it. Ari Graynor, who has made a sort of specialty of feisty, overripe ingénues, proves equally sporting as Peeps.

The wonderful comic actor Daniel Breaker has a tougher job as the drab Lee, but at least manages to work in some nifty deadpan reactions. And a fetching Alicia Silverstone finds a little kick in the sometimes irritatingly earnest Sara.

As for Winkler, who is very much in on the joke of his inclusion, his Chuck ultimately evolves from an embarrassing geezer to a cuddly father figure. The progress is, of course, neither surprising nor convincing; but like the other performers here, Winkler makes it as entertaining as possible.

USA Today

Variety: "The Performers"

"The Performers," David West Read's romantic comedy about a lovers' showdown at an Adult Film Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, is dopey fun. That's not because the sensibility is raunchy, but because the sentiments are so corny. There's not much to cheer in the thin plot about married porn stars who teach a prudish couple a thing or two about true love and great sex; the big pleasure comes from watching true comic artists spin this trite material into gold.

In his first Broadway assignment, helmer Evan Cabnet makes his mark by assembling a first-class ensemble to play the engaging artistes competing for honors at an adult-film awards show.

Mandrew Rod-Dick, the manly porn star played with endearing enthusiasm and great comic commitment by Cheyenne Jackson (who won immortality in "Xanadu"), is confident he'll take the prize for male performer of the year for his soulful performance in "Planet of the Tits." He gets all emotional trying to explain the beauty of his work to Lee (a well-cast Daniel Breaker), the wary journalist who's interviewing him for a newspaper feature. Lee's schoolteacher fiancee, Sara (Alicia Silverstone, looking sweet and playing funny), is just as sexually repressed as he is, so it's obvious where that plotline is going.

Mandrew may think he's got the award locked up, but he's up against stiff competition in Blade Butler, Little John Big Dong, Antonio Bonederass, Black Attack and especially Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler, having a ball), the revered star who wins every year, but is gracious and humble about it ("I would be nothing without all the people I've fucked").

Read ("The Dream of the Burning Boy") soon drops the professional competition between Mandrew and Chuck for a domestic problem between Mandrew and Peeps (Ari Graynor), his beloved if profoundly dumb wife and fellow porn star. In Graynor's flat-out fantastic perf, Peeps is devoted to Mandrew but insanely jealous of Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber, adorable) and her big breasts. That, too, has predictable consequences.

The scribe is not without wit, but it's on a line-by-line basis. A film title here ("12 Angry Lesbians"), an inside joke there (dubbing a director named Fingers "the Martin Scorsese of porn"). And while the performances are priceless, they can't disguise the simplistic themes and unsophisticated plot devices of what is really a very old-fashioned comedy.


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