John Ellison Conlee and Patrick Wilsonin The Full Monty(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
John Ellison Conlee and Patrick Wilson
in The Full Monty
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
"This is a show about hope, integrity, and ordinary people put in extraordinary situations," says Patrick Wilson. The actor plays Jerry Lukowski, the self-proclaimed leader of the pack, in The Full Monty.

Those who've been lucky enough to catch the blockbuster musical at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, or who have seen the film on which it was based, know that this is the story of a group of laid-off steelworkers who put on a strip show to raise money. The movie was set in Sheffield, England; but, for American audiences, the musical shuffles off to Buffalo, New York. Backing Wilson are Monty's other men with a mission: John Ellison Conlee, Jason Daniely, Andre De Shields, Romain Frugé, and Marcus Neville.

A show about male bonding? Yes, that's just what we have here. As Wilson points out: "Anytime you get six guys together, you either have male bonding or a war."

So, what has made The Full Monty a must-see? Is it the flash of male genitalia in the show's final moments? Perhaps. The Broadway razzmatazz of the musical adaptation? Doesn't hurt. The fact that this is an honest, unpretentious show that every man--and woman--can identify with? Definitely. Although it's six men up on stage dropping their, ummm, inhibitions, Monty is about average people of both sexes and what happens to them when they are faced with a crisis. How will they react? If given the opportunity, will they do something way out of line with their normal behavior just to keep it all together?

I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with two of the men who go the full monty in The Full Monty. Patrick Wilson very much enjoys playing Lukowski, the guy who has the brainstorm to raise cash in a highly creative way. (His particular motivation is that he needs to get up-to-date with his child support payments.) "These guys are so blue collar, it hurts," says Wilson of the Monty men. "They're slightly ignorant, perhaps, but they're all good men. Not heroes, not villains--just average guys thrown into circumstances that they have no control over, dealing with those circumstances the best they can and from the heart."

Unemployment isn't pretty but, in today's world, we all know about it and worry that it may strike us. Now take it one step further: You're living in Buffalo (an oxymoron?) and you're desperate for money. You hang out with former co-workers, meet other guys in the same boat. You all sit around, have a few beers, and commiserate. It's the furthest thing from a traditional "men's group"--and thank God for that, or this show wouldn't work. You'd never find the guys of The Full Monty at the kind of church-basement men's group attended by the Burt Reynolds character in Starting Over, nor do they go into the woods to beat drums and perform ceremonial rituals. Instead, they hang together and figure out a practical way to get out of the mess in which they find themselves.

The men of The Full Monty(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
The men of The Full Monty
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
John Ellison Conlee's role in Monty is that of Jerry Lukowski's best friend, Dave Bukatinsky, an overweight married guy who is nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought of displaying his naked body in public. The way Conlee sees it, the show is about "what you'd be willing to do for yourself--and how, if you're not willing to do it for yourself, you suffer." He feels that the "group hug" initiated by Jerry Lukowski at the end of one of the show's songs is revealing of these men. "It's sort of ironic, yet they're genuinely hugging," he says. "Their feelings are forced to the surface and they get an idea of how important they are to each other. We don't tell the audience about our relationships, don't talk about them; you just see them unfold."

The various elements of the show--David Yazbek's score, Terrence McNally's book, Jack O'Brien's direction, and some terrific performances--come together to provide a remarkably joyous theatrical experience. Patrick Wilson says that, every night at the Eugene O'Neill, the show begins and "high jinks ensue." So, hats off to the men of The Full Monty. Wouldn't it be great if everyone could solve their problems and work through their phobias with as much flair as these guys display?