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Leah Hocking and Marc Kudisch in
The Thing About Men
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
What's truly astonishing about I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts wrote and which has been running Off-Broadway for seven years, is its virtual obscurity hereabouts. No one -- absolutely no one -- has ever brought the amusing revue up to me, one way or the other. The cause for this non-word-of-mouth locally seems traceable to an early decision on the part of the show's producers: They apparently reckoned that the material, which sends up male-female romantic relationships from first date to rocking chair, would be most appealing to non-Manhattanites. Then they promoted the show accordingly, with much success.

For the spiffily produced new DiPietro-Roberts collaboration, The Thing About Men, plopped at an uptown venue somewhat off the tourist trail, hopes must be high to establish Manhattan-worthy credentials for the hot team. But just as the longevity of I Love You... was impossible to predict, it's pointless (though tempting) to estimate what kind of run this follow-up will enjoy.

Based on its raw elements, The Thing About Men deserves at least a modest run in order that the talented DiPietro and Roberts may get more recognition than they've received thus far from musical comedy truffle hounds. DiPietro has a certain facility for the well-turned remark and the comic set-up, both in his book scenes and his lyrics. Roberts has a knack for tossing off easy tunes, even if sometimes his gripping melodic lines don't add up to actual finished songs. There are a couple of numbers here -- a torch for a gal to carry, "Because," and a torch for a guy to carry, "The Better Man Won" -- that might break past theater confines and find their way to nightclubs, which isn't something that can be said for much that's heard in musical comedy nowadays.

The situation from which The Thing About Men attempts to draw comedy was first exposed in Doris Dörrie's 1985 movie Men. In that celluloid click, a womanizing advertising executive, upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, manages to become the roommate of the hickey-bestowing artist with whom the neglected lady has started slipping around. The irate hubby, thinking only to spy on his competition, discovers that he likes the other guy's companionship and even schemes, once he's given up on winning his spouse back, to help his new pal win wifey's hand in marriage.

This is an unlikely plot that Dörrie managed to make work in the German original and that DiPietro doesn't question. He should have, since the storyline contains so many holes it could be sliced, slapped on rye bread, and served as a Swiss cheese sandwich. The Thing About Men feels less like a piece written by someone who's familiar with marital complexities than it seems the effort of a person concocting the pilot of a television series doomed to be hastily yanked from the air. Look, even farce has to be based in reality. If advertising exec Tom (Marc Kudisch) is so in love with wife Lucy (Leah Hocking) and two never-seen-never-heard sons, why doesn't he keep some contact with them? Why doesn't Lucy, whom Tom abandons for what seems like forever but is only a month, try to locate the vanished bread-winner? Why doesn't Sebastian (Ron Bohmer), who must have some basic math skills even if he is an artist, start putting two and two together about Tom's weird behavior and realize that a vengeful hubby is under his roof? Why does Lucy find it so unadulteratedly amusing that, when she arrives at Sebastian's loft for brunch, her lover's roommate greets her in a gorilla mask he refuses to remove?

Perhaps we've come so far from the inane narratives of 1920s musicals to the "meaningful with a capital 'M'" musicals of the '90s that something in the current wind is blowing us in the other direction. But the mindlessness that DiPietro and Roberts try to get away with in The Thing About Men -- and that they do get away with during the occasional more deftly-contrived scenes -- is finally overpowering. The resulting work, which was first tried out at Paramus's American Stage Company in 1999, is of the nice-try-but-no-cigar variety. Furthermore, there's an element of the show that calls its purpose into broader doubt: latent homoeroticism. Not even counting a scene in which Sebastian lies farcically on top of Tom to administer a massage, The Thing About Men coddles the male-bonding liaison and the titillating byplay that accrues more than the troubled-marriage angle. Eventually, the work comes to resemble the buddy flicks of the past decade or two in which any woman included in the cast is only along for the bumpy ride. So what if neither man ends up with Lucy and her offspring, DiPietro seems to ask; they've got each other, and that's what counts. Is that, ultimately, the thing about men?

Daniel Reichard, Ron Bohmer, Marc Kudisch, and Jennifer Simard
in The Thing About Men
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Marc Kudisch, who plays and sings Tom in his reliable pouter-pigeon manner, may be the real reason to see The Thing About Men. He's one of a crop of leading men for whom vehicles would be written if anyone today still wrote vehicles for men -- or for any individual performer who isn't Kristin Chenoweth. The shovel-jawed Kudisch has a beautiful baritone that makes a person wish DiPietro and Roberts had handed him more ditties to grab hold of, and his self-deprecating approach undercuts any pretentiousness that might sneak into his delivery.

Kudisch is flanked in this musical ménage à trois by Ron Bohmer, another strapping fellow with a roomy voice and a game spirit, and by Leah Hocking, yet another singer who probably doesn't need a microphone threaded through her hair. Both hold up their ends of the bargain. One of DiPietro's beneficial notions is that the tale is oiled along the way by two all-purpose supporting players -- Jennifer Simard, who makes quick and funny work of every character she's asked to impersonate, and Daniel Reichard, who's also fast on his feet. Simard is funniest as Sebastian's space-cadet neighbor; Reichard shines as a snooty waiter, even though the song he tries to sell is a dud and might have been jettisoned in favor of something more germane to the action. Mark Clements has directed the industrious quintet as if he understands that it's difficult to hit moving targets, which -- given the flimsy script -- isn't a bad tactic. Musical staging is by Rob Ashford, who in no way had to strain himself.

Other pleasant distractions have been provided by set designer Richard Hoover, whose primary contribution is a stage-high rear wall of simulated painted bricks with a spiral staircase at each side. Six arched windows that seem to shout "pizza oven" are cut into the wall; when their coverings part, videos that economically suggest any number of indoor and outdoor locales are projected in the spaces. (Elaine J. McCarthy is credited with the projection design, and it's an invaluable addition to the enterprise.) Ken Billington's lighting does the required job, as do Gregory Gale's costumes (Hocking's shoes are especially sexy) and Jon Weston's sound work. They've each done their thing well, whereas DiPietro and Roberts haven't quite.

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