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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Full Monty'
The boys of Buffalo go all the way for laughs in "The Full Monty." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Contents: November 16, 2000:
"The Full Monty"

"The Full Monty"
Book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, directed by Jack O'Brien.
Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Lindsay Law, Thomas Hall
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49 Street
Opened October 26, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 2, 2000
NEW YORK -- There's a lot more to men than what they look like when they take their clothes off. There's a lot more to women than what their bodies look like, too. Women know this and men ought to.

That's the unlikely message that underlies this charming, clever, funny, tuneful confection made from the British film of the same name. For a show ostensibly about whether a half dozen men will uncover their privates in a strip show, "The Fully Monty" has a lot of substance.

That's not surprising, since the book is by Terrence McNally, who wrote "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Superwoman." He is adept at filling Broadway musicals with serious issues so there's more than fluff there. In "Monty," he also addresses the anguish men feel when they can't be their families' "providers." The men who meet at the United Steelworkers Union hall in Buffalo have been out of work for 18 months. One sings, "I want a job, I want to feel like a person instead of a slob." Being out of work threatens their marriages and prompts one to contemplate suicide.

In desperation at the thought of losing visiting rights to his son for not paying child support, Jerry Lukowski (Patrick Wilson) gets his buddies to agree to put on a "Chippendale" style show for the ladies, which will raise $50,000. The problem is that some of the men don't have much natural talent much less perfect physiques; one is chubby with a big pot belly, another is bald, and a couple are nervous about the size of their sexual parts. McNally handles that age-old anxiety with direct though good-natured, inoffensive ribaldry.

In the course of developments, there's a lot of table turning. The women -- wives, girlfriends, ex's -- are a raunchy crew, discussing the men with gusto. The guys walk about in their shorts and insecurities. Dave Bukatinsky (John Ellison Conlee) is consumed with grief at his avoirdupois. A pal tries to convince him that "Fat is a feminist issue." There's a startling moment when they look at a girlie magazine and start talking about women's bodies. Suddenly, they realize what they're doing and worry that the women will look at them in the same way. That segues to the women, who are dishing it out: "He's fat, he's old, he's skinny, he's bald, he's short, he's got pimples on his ass." One of the men says, "We just better hope the woman are forgiving."

The book is not quite as urbane as its pretensions, but it avoids falling into sitcom. McNally's dialogue is always subtly on-the-mark, including the running joke on the sexual myths about black men. "Every woman in the world loves a black man," boasts Noah "Horse" T. Simmons (Andre De Shields) in a funny, jivey blues.

McNally also touches the division of class. Harold Nichols, the out-of-work plant executive, tells the workers that his joblessness matters more than the workers' because, "I have an MBA from the Wharton School of Business."

It may surprise one, given the theme, but there's nothing in the play that's lascivious or offensive. There are more laughs than leers. Most of the off-color language comes from the coolly riotous Jeanette Burmeister (Kathleen Freeman), a retired show biz character who shows up to play the piano and help whip the boys into shape. Ruminating about her past life, she warbles, "Once when I insulted Frankie, I played with broken fingers....Things could be better!"

Choreographer Jerry Mitchell has designed some lively turns, including a very clever dance that grows out of basketball movements. David Yazbek's music is tuneful if not memorable. (Maybe that's too much to expect of Broadway musicals these days.)

The cast does fine all around, with Patrick Wilson an appealing Jerry, Lisa Datz cool and expressive as his ex, John Ellison Conlee a sympathetic Dave, and Annie Golden warm and perky as his wife. Kathleen Freeman is a comic standout as Jeanette, Andre De Shields is a crowd-pleasing Horse, and Emily Skinner is a warm, funny shopaholic Vicki Nichols.

The set, by John Arnone, has an artful pastel backdrop of factory smoke stacks, with scenes set by corrugated walls, cardboard cutout houses, and interiors that range from the Nichol's living room to the strip show's john. A glittery curtain and strobes highlight the men in red jock straps as they gyrate and move to unsnap and reveal "the full monty." Well, they do it, and they don't. You won't be disappointed. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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