Backstage dramas – from Applause to The Dresser to Singin’ in the Rain – practically number the stars, but rare is one as scathing and smart as David Bell’s The Play About the Naked Guy, one of three Emerging Artist Theater (EAT) works playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
Oh, and one more thing: it is side-splittingly funny.
Guy, a knowing comedy directed by Tom Wojtunik with perfect pace, begins with the Integrity Players, a small theater troupe whose mission statement revolves around bringing little-known classics to life. The only problem is that these classics remain little-known and little seen; no audience ever turns out for their shows. Artistic director Dan (Jason Schuchman) refuses to budge and put on a more commercial show, even though his actress wife Amanda (Stacy Mayer), is expecting a baby, much to the chagrin of her mother, Mrs. Anderson (Ellen Reilly), a Connecticut blueblood with plenty of green to spare.
Enter producer Eddie (Christopher Borg), one of the most riotous characters the New York stage has seen in some. A ribald combination of Norma Desmond and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, the manipulative Eddie meets Harold (Wayne Henry), the closeted actor who rounds out the trio of Integrity Players at a gay club. After hearing about the Integrity Players’ woes, Eddie – who in the past has produced such hits as the (barely) fictitious “Naked Boys Running Around Naked” – decides to use the Integrity Players’ resources – namely, Mrs. Anderson – to mount (oh, that one was too easy) a production starring porn king Kit Swagger (Dan Amboyer). When Dan finds himself the lone voice of protest, the show must indeed go on.
Bell generously provides each of his octet acting ensemble with rich material that may seem silly, but requires an incredible amount of talent to pull off on a nightly basis. Chad Austin and Christopher T. Sloan are perfect as Eddie’s bitchy entourage members (if Eddie is Ursula, then they clearly are Flotsam and Jetsam) and Mayer is a laugh riot as the actress all too willing to push the envelope. Amboyer, too, meets a deceptively layered role head-on. As Kit and Harold forge a bond, the scenes between him and Henry over the course of the play become remarkably satisfying, culminating in a final scene that is as true for any actor who has ever pored over an Uta Hagen book as it is funny.
But those unfamiliar with the names like Hagen, Seldes, and Mamet should fear not – this Guy is still broad enough of a comedy that those on the outside will still feel inside, thanks especially to three performers. Reilly, a peerless talent, makes Mrs. Anderson a one-woman tour-de-force – there doesn’t seem to be a line that comes out of her mouth whose intonation does not seem carefully considered. Borg is a showstopper with his over-the-top gestures, reactions and line delivery. Ultimately, though, Guy belongs to Henry. As Bell carefully illustrates Harold’s entire journey of self- discovery as he comes out of the closet, Henry locates notes that are both humorous and touching (and as I’m sure other critics will point out, the actor is a dead ringer for the late Tony Randall). His work takes a character that could have been a stereotype and makes him completely substantial.
As Sondheim once said, art isn’t easy, but putting it together has rarely been this much fun.