Add a lot of raunch, a small amount of flesh, and a surprisingly generous helping of feel-good sentiment, and what do you get? One answer is the Great White Way’s megahit, The Book of Mormon. So who can blame playwright David West Read for trying to replicate the same formula for his Broadway debut, The Performers, now at the Longacre Theatre?
While nine Tony Awards probably aren’t in the show’s future, the laughs are plentiful enough here to ensure a great time for theatergoers receptive to Read’s brand of decidedly off-color humor. Moreover, the highly accomplished cast of six actors under Evan Cabnet’s direction – led by the brilliant Ari Graynor and a first-rate Cheyenne Jackson — do their utmost to sell the show’s “all you need is love” message, even if not all of Read’s characters and situations end up being fully believable.
The flesh arrives immediately as we meet the hunkalicious, mostly-undressed Jackson as Mandrew, a porn star being interviewed in his hotel room by New York Post reporter and former high school classmate Lee (an underused Daniel Breaker). It’s just hours before the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas, where Mandrew hopes to take home a couple of trophies, but the none-too-bright actor is a bit on edge, due in part to the recent moodiness of his wife and fellow porn star Peeps (Graynor).
Mandrew’s marital situation only gets worse once he confesses to a non-passionate kiss with his former co-star, and Peeps’ estranged best friend, the dimwitted, newly big-boobed Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber, making the most of her stereotypical porn star-with-a-heart-of-gold role), but the real reason for Peeps’ emotional outbursts are still to come.
Meanwhile, Lee is having a slight romantic crisis of his own, having brought along his equally uptight fiancée/high-school sweetheart Sara (a decidedly committed Alicia Silverstone), who is unsettled enough by the milieu to start questioning the limits of their relationship. When Lee catches a miffed Sara drinking in the hotel bar with aging porn star extraordinaire, Chuck Wood (television legend Henry Winkler, adding a nice touch of gravitas and poignancy to the part), he agrees to attend the awards’ after-party, with unexpected consequences.
That The Performers often delights us, silly as the show can be, is a testament to Read’s skillful way with a well-timed (if vulgar) remark — even when it seems mostly designed to shock the audience — and his gift for creating physical comedy.
But the lioness’ share of the credit for the loud guffawing in the audience belongs to Graynor, who gives an award-worthy performance. She makes Peeps a singularly hilarious personage, combining parts of Bette Midler, Billie Dawn, and Pamela Anderson. But Graynor also brings enormous vulnerability to the coarse Peeps, making her someone you can’t help but root for even at her most meshugeneh.
Unfortunately, Read stretches credibility in drawing Sara and Lee’s relationship . It’s never satisfactorily explained why the couple is finally engaged after being together for more than a decade, andt it seems unlikely that, being in their late twenties, they’re only now grappling with the issues of long-term monogamy and sexual naivete. They’re meant to come off as charmingly innocent, but they seem instead to have emerged from a 50-year-old time capsule, a too-strong contrast from the rest of this decidedly 21st-century entertainment.