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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Burlesque Is Back
"The Full Monty"
Eugene O'Neill Theater
230 West 49th Street
Reviewed November 3, 2000 by Margaret Croyden
If you enjoy crass and vulgar musicals with a couple of risky toilet jokes thrown in, you may want to see "The Full Monty." Acclaimed a hit by pundits, critics, and low-brow fools, the production is a crude imitation of the successful British movie. In the film, the setting is a working class section of Sheffield England; it has now been crudely transplanted to Buffalo. "Full Monty" is British slang for stripping down--completely--in a burlesque show. Since it was originally British it is hard to see how the American audience would know the meaning of the slang if they hadn't seen the film. But never mind, word gets around.

Written by Tony winner Terrence McNally, the book is a poorly constructed amalgam of banalities and platitudes. Unemployed working class men, rather than taking the available jobs offered them, which they disdain, decide that they can do better by becoming strippers--an implausible premise to begin with. After much wrangling, the men organize themselves into a company to learn to dance, and to wiggle their private parts, and most important, how to strip down to the Full Monty. The company is a motley bunch: one is considerably heavy and so ashamed of his body that sex life with his wife is nil; another, the organizer, separated from his wife and in debt for child care, involves his son with this unsavory enterprise; another has kept his unemployment from his wife, a loud mouth big spender; another, a reluctant participator but a quick learner, is a mama's boy and a budding homosexual; still another is a decrepit black man who boasts in an insinuating song that he is a "big black man" (you know what that means), and dances the dance of a young man. In due time, this unappetizing ensemble learns to do bumps and grinds, and other lascivious movements (that are continually repeated for cheap laughs), strip to their shorts, then to jock straps, and finally to their full frontal nudity. More laughs, shouts and screams

The show, a new low for Broadway, not only excels in cliches thanks to McNally's dialogue, but he has stereotyped all the characters as well. The working class wives are overdressed, overly made up, overly dumb, vulgar mouthed, and look and act like whores. The men are dumb too; they think stripping is manly, comradely, and ultimately fun, even edifying (though they resist it in the beginning), while the women who come to see them perform, degrade themselves by screaming for the Full Monty. In fact, the entire show is geared to the final moments when the men are completely naked. Not a very pleasant sight. Nor a funny one, either.

McNalley may think he has written a socially significant play that debunks conventional concepts of beauty in peoples' bodies. But his descending to bathroom jokes, incessant talk talk about private parts, and penis size (using the vulgar word) lacks real wit, or satire. The writer, the director Jack O'Brien, and the composer/lyricist David Yazbek have all collaborated to infuse the atmosphere with juvenile humor that one finds in boys' locker rooms. All of which undercuts any serious points McNally may have intended.

Unfortunately the music does not help either; the ballads are sentimental and ersatz romantic, or bawdy and loud. Yazbek's lyrics match the childishness of the grown men who, surprisingly, have devoted their considerable talents to second rate material.

The actors are competent and the only interesting production number is a dance based on a basket ball game. John Ellision Conlee who plays the fat man, is the most appealing actor in the show. He is really heavy but light and graceful, though his constant display of his abdomen is embarrassing. But he has an amiable sweetness, and has a singular presence on stage. One can't help thinking how he feels doing this part. The black actor Andre De Shields is a wonderful dancer, and admittedly a show- stopper, but when he tries to depict a broken down old man, he is unbelievable; his vitality shines through. Kathleen Freeman who plays the old time piano accompanist is the wise cracking, show- biz cliche, the woman who has seen everything, a reminder of every torch singer that has ever appeared on stage. Other than that, the entire cast is competent enough. Typical of musicals these days, every one is miked and if you shout loud enough, you stop the show and you're acclaimed a hit.

If you like to see people make fools of themselves and if you like to see a barrage of men's naked behinds (and more) then this show is for you. Some fans are thrilled by the prospect.

Alas, audiences' (and the critics) love for prurient shows is still there. Allen Jay Lerner, Rogers and Hammerstein are only ghosts of the past. For, the yahoos have taken over. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden, author of "In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys" (Continuum), writes frequently about the arts.

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