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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

Secret Livesof the Sexists

The Secret Lives of the Sexists has more than enough mixups to meet the requirements of a classical farce. That's farceà-la-Charles Ludlam: broad sexual humor with lots of sight gags plus a generous dash of sexual word play and politics. Stylistically, the hat tips towards dramatic sources ranging from Mrs. Warren's Profession and Charley's Aunt to old pot boilers like Stella Dallas,.

The several intermingling subplots spin around the marital conflicts of two brothers. Buddy Husband (Michael Dowling) is estranged from his feminist wife Nadine (Gin Hammond) who suspects him of an affair with Zena Grossfinger (Leslie Bandle) who's really her mother. Brother Izzy (Rob Grader) who is married to Fanny (Tom Story), an heiress whose sexual aggressiveness does little to boost Izzi's underactive sexual urges for marital intercourse. This sexless state of affairs entails serious financial consequences since Fanny can't collect her inheritance unless she has a baby. Buddy's plan to help reunite his wife and his mother-in-law, and Izzy's scheme to enlist Buddy as a surrogate heir producer are the modus leading to the farcical melee designed to keep the audience in stitches.

If there had been a laugh meter installed at the Unicorn Theater's opening I attended, it would seem that Ludlam's work is due to find a wider "conventional" audience than it has in the past. For those unfamiliar with that past, a brief digression: The 29 plays Ludlam wrote and often acted in before his death from AIDS in 1985 were. produced mostly at his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company which labeled itself "Scourge of Human Folly." Through the dedication of Ludlam's principal actor, Everett Quinton, the company remained a Greenwich Village landmark for years after his death. Elsewhere, however, except for college drama productions, only the campy vampire hit The Mystery of Irma Vep, (sub-titled a "penny dreadful"), has enjoyed success in mainstream regional theaters. The Unicorn Theatre is thus living up to its reputation for daring theater by bringing the little-known Sexists to Berkshire audiences.

To get back to the laughter that rippled through much of the audience at the opening I attended, Sexist should find enough takers to keep the house filled through its limited run. On the other hand, the Unicorn's adventure with Ludlam's basically burlesque theatricality is not a start-to-finish success. In fact, for most of the first act, I found myself more bemused than amused.

It's not that this play lacks the qualities that won Ludlam's company considerable respect as well as funding, but that farce is an art that takes years to master. The excellent recent revival of The Rivals at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (see link to our review) is a case in point. Of the highly accomplished cast, the ones pulling the heftiest comedic load were the older performers. In a farce like Sexists which also entails much slapstick and cross-dressing, inexperienced farceurs are prone tocome off too much like participants in a fraternity drag romp.

Having seen what some of these actors could do in Life's A Dream (link), the first half of the show, especially the initial half hour, had me wondering about the last minute clash in vision between the scheduled director, Stephen Samuels, and the final director, Eric Hill. If Samuel's sensibility as Ridiculous Theater manager and actor didn't serve the Unicorn production, did Hill take the baton too late to reprise his prior success with getting the Unicorn Acting Company to bring off roles that would challenge the most experienced actors?

Whatever behind-the-scenes problems contributed to the slowly gained comic altitude, all was well, or reasonably so, in the second half of this production. In the case of one actor, Tom Story, it even began well. He stepped into Fanny Husband's little white sox and black pumps -- (not to mention a mind-boggling array of outrageously funny costumes by Marion Williams) -- as if to the drag artist's persona born. His colleagues didn't get fully warmed up until after the Act I-II intermission. Only Rob Grader who I liked as Clarion the foolish servant in Life's A Dream remains trapped in his cartoonish mop wig. His mugging was tiresome and his closet gay imitation of Woody Allen as unfunny as it was unconvincing.

Richard Ruiz as a pretend-gay, horny aerobics instructor took the biggest leap to free-floating insouciance. His final appearance proved to be an inspired bit of drollery. It's probably as much Eric Hill as Ludlam. Anyone who remembers the playlet Infancy in the Wilder, Wilder. . . (link) which Hill directed last summer, may recognize the prop and funny business cleverly recycled from that for this finale.

Yoshinori Tanokura and Kenichi Toki's set is as deliciously garish as Ms. Williams' costumes. The copy-cat Keith Haring paintings and wobbly window are great fun. Matthew E. Adelson's snazzy roving lights and the Prologue and incidental music also abet the general good time mood. Still, with so much of the proceedings in a cartoon mode, the more than two hours it takes to come to the happy ending is somewhat more than enough.

Life's A Dream
The Rivals
Wilder, Wilder. . .

Directed by Eric Hill
With: Rob Grader, Gin Hammond, Tom Story , Leslie Bandle, Richard Ruiz,.Tracy K. Levesque and Michele McCann
Sets: Yoshinori Tanokura and Kenichi Toki
Costumes: Marion Williams
Lights: Matthew E. Adelson
Prologue Music Composer: Peter Golub
Berkshire Theatre Festival/Unicorn-- POBox 797, Stockbridge, MA 01262 (413/298-5536)
8/12/98-8/30/98; opening 8/14/98
Reviewed 8/16//98 by Elyse Sommer

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