nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
March 12, 2005
Like its title character, Gorilla Man is in an arrested state of evolutionary development. Crude and shallow, it makes no concessions towards the enduring complexities involved in being a human creature. In another show this might not be a problem—I’m by no means against wacky entertainment for wacky entertainment’s sake—but considering that this complexity is the very theme of the play, its lack of inclusion in the grain of the production presents something of a problem.
Gorilla Man is the latest from playwright Kyle Jarrow, whose work on such pieces as President Harding Is a Rock Star and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant have given him a reputation in some quarters as a mischievous wunderkind. In this new musical, Jarrow, who also composed, is placed center stage for the entire show, comically mincing and swaying at the piano like a hipster Liberace. A shrewder production might have placed the musicians on the sidelines and allowed the story—of a boy named Billy who discovers that he is the spawn of a violent circus freak—to take the primary focus. Instead, Jarrow remains the focus throughout, and it’s difficult to refrain from making him the butt of the play’s deficiencies.
The director, Habib Azar, is obviously responsible in part for this decision. And unfortunately, the story itself proves more absorbing in theory than in execution. Billy (Jason Fuchs) wakes up one morning with fur-covered arms, prompting his Mother (Stephanie Bast) to tell him the truth about his birth: that his father was the Gorilla Man, a hirsute carnival performer who was put in a high-security prison after a bloody killing spree. Initially intending to murder her son (who she had hoped would not grow up to be like his dad), she instead banishes him from home, sending him on a picaresque journey to discover the consequences of his genes.
This could be wonderfully heady, pop-opera stuff, but the relationship between the play’s broad comedy and its attempts to explore its emotional underpinning is shaky, with neither element bold enough to support the other. The creakiest jokes and the hoariest cliches are presented with great self-satisfaction, as if no one had ever deconstructed a horror film before. The wise truck driver; the cynical politician; the boozy, down-on-her-luck beauty; all of these characters and more appear to earnestly—but not too earnestly—debate the intertwining themes of fate and character as they apply to Billy’s simian future. Rather than deepening or subverting these archetypes, Jarrow merely uses them as cardboard signposts leading to the inevitable confrontation between Billy and his father (Matt Walton) in the loomingly portentous Prison on the Mountains.
The book’s problems, unfortunately, are not helped by the songs, which strain for rock-n-roll catharsis but lack character, especially when they wind up as platforms for American Idol-style pyrotechnics. Every mark, both musical and situational, is hit with dutiful predictability and the requisite amount of cheeky cuteness, resulting in a show so eager to please in its throwaway strenuousness that it becomes dull to watch: it strives to do all the work for you, yet doesn’t have dash enough to make it seem effortless.
In the end, little happens in Gorilla Man that couldn’t have been extrapolated by a brief description of its premise. In almost every calculated detail it neglects to leaves room for breath in its characters and situations, and, therefore, for the audience. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon; the raucous audience I sat with seemed to be highly entertained, and the cast and crew were obviously putting forth a great deal of effort. But is it too much to expect a play about humanity to feel human, even if it does feature gorilla men in the primary roles?