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Phyllis Frelich and André De Shields in Prymate
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
It's not every production that boasts a primate behavioral specialist among its personnel, but this one does. (Garon Michael is the fellow's name.) The show is Mark Medoff's Prymate -- the title is deliberately misspelled -- and it's the Broadway transfer of a lauded Florida State University production staffed by theater heavyweights affiliated with that institution. Playwright Medoff is signed on there and so are director Ed Sherin, costume designer Colleen Muscha, and sound designer Michael Smith. What's more, André De Shields had the title role at FSU, playing the eponymous primate in brown t-shirt, loose shorts, and black gloves and shoes.

You can see why all the participants believe they're on to something with this play, in which compelling questions are brought to the fore about the motivations behind scientific experiments in behavioral psychology and AIDS study. As if those concerns aren't grave enough, further doubt is thrown on what, if anything, actually separates humankind from the apes. The gorilla under surveillance is named Graham and he lives in relative contentment with deaf anthropologist(?) Esther (Phyllis Frelich).

Having learned something like 400 signs, Graham is a helpful companion to Esther in her Southwestern New Mexico outpost; these buddies even enjoy the occasional Lindy together. But their camaraderie is threatened when Phyllis's ex-boyfriend, an AIDS researcher named Avrum (James Naughton), shows up with shapely interpreter Allison (Heather Tom), a divorcée. Though Avrum is initially reticent about the reasons for his visit, preferring to have Esther think that he's come solely to declare his love for her once again, he has actually hiked to the premises with the intention of taking Graham back to the lab. There's a secret reason for his scheme: When he and Esther were studying Graham together in citified quarters, Avrum infected Graham with the AIDS virus in the hope that whatever he might learn from the gorilla's condition would benefit humans.

When Esther learns this, she's understandably incensed. So is Allison, who -- having traveled to the New Mexico outback in a tailored ensemble -- changes into something simpler at Esther's suggestion and begins exposing her personal problems as well as the tattoos on her arms and legs and the stud in her tongue. (Asked by Esther in very easy-to-read sign language about more private piercings, Allison replies that there are none, although she's thought about it.) Also extremely dismayed about the medical news is Graham, who understands that he's now HIV-positive; well, at any rate, he understands that his health has been compromised. He begins to act out his chagrin and this leads to a series of incidents including an already well publicized, quite explicit sex act between the rapidly unhinging Allison and the chest-beating Graham. There's also a climactic coupling between the vengeful Allison and the obtuse Avrum. At yet another point, Graham tries to drown Avrum in the natural pool that's located on Esther's airy property. (One catch with the pool is that it's never clear whether it's supposed to be indoors or outdoors, a problem that set designer Robert Steinberg might have helped clear up.)

At least in part, Medoff's purpose in contriving this heated tale seems to be to denounce the use of animals for scientific exploration. In terms of feelings and emotions, the playwright suggests, humans aren't at all superior to other primates and may even be far less dignified, given humankind's multitude of baser instincts. Apparently supported in this view by director Sherin, Medoff makes his argument by eventually getting the three humans down on all fours and having them rove about Steinberg's junior-mesa set. It's a forced look at primal urges, to say the least.

To get where he wants to go, Medoff commits more than one unfair short-cut. When Graham tussles with Allison for a couple of unpleasant minutes, Esther is upstage doing chores with her back to them and somehow never realizes what's happening. Medoff also sends Avrum off-stage for a stretch of time so that Allison can confide certain information to Esther -- and though the dramatist has hinted earlier at the nature of Allison's painful revelation, it still feels as if it's there to pump up a narrative that's not gathering sufficient momentum. Awkward writing, all of this.

Heather Tom and James Naughton in Prymate
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Then there's the casting of André De Shields as Graham. When he was slithering across the boards in Ain't Misbehavin', De Shields sang about being a viper, but that was nothing compared to this gorilla duty. The actor indisputably gives an elegant performance -- guided, it would seem, by specialist Garon. His slow movements lend the play a stately tempo and his facial expressions and grunts seem uncannily accurate, but I'm wondering if it's just white liberal bias that makes me uncomfortable with an African-American in the role. During the scenes wherein Graham brutalizes and subdues Allison, I couldn't help thinking that I was watching a modern deconstruction of King Kong -- and I didn't like the thought. There may be no other way to stage Prymate but that doesn't make this approach entirely valid; nothing that deflects a spectator's concentration from a character to an actor ever does.

Phyllis Frelich, who won a Tony for Medoff's Children of a Lesser God, exhibits the same hard-nosed sensitivity now as she did then and her silent fury remains something to see. Signing with urgency, she only occasionally makes sounds, but when she does, there's something even more poignant about her. James Naughton, trim and trim of beard, plays a man who has cultivated charm as a cover for manipulation, and he does a fine job of it. Heather Tom, who's won a couple of daytime Emmys, has to travel from self-possessed to undone as well as sign to Esther and spout to Avrum the contents of Esther's lightning-signed remarks. This is no easy assignment but she brings it off, right up to her all-fours crouch at fade-out. (Are the many tattoos sported by Tom her own or make-up? Just wondering.)

Just before that final fade, lighting designer Jeff Nellis replicates a sunrise that softens the actors' faces as they pose together like figures in an Edward Hicks painting. Presumably, the effect represents hope for the besieged characters. Medoff may be tacitly commenting that the family of man needn't be dysfunctional after all. His play, however, is dysfunctional in the extreme.

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