In The Performers, an entirely insubstantial, where’s-the-beef porn farce from the young playwright David West Read, a sensitive, self-regarding adult-film actor named “Mandrew” (Cheyenne Jackson) reveals a shocking personal secret to Lee (Daniel Breaker), the New York Post reporter who’s interviewing him on the eve of the Adult Video News Awards in Vegas: He talks to his mom every day, on the phone. And he sends her all of his films. “I cut out all the sex,” he explains, “She likes the acting.”
The Performers feels like it was produced and directed by Mandrew’s mom. Although packed tight with dirty talk — some it funny-outré, most of it punny-soft — this is sex comedy at its most sexless: You could eat dinner off the play’s smooth, bacteriastatic surfaces. Sure, people swap dresses, and even talk about swapping partners, but the characters never menace convention — and when they do, they apologize for it in the next scene, as if they’ve just come from a stern talking-to backstage by Standards and Practices. Doors slam, identities are foolishly mistaken, malapropisms fly, spouses walk in on incriminating-looking scenes that aren’t what they seem. Yet tender monogamy reigns supreme throughout and never fends off any serious challenge from play or playwright. The Performers is basically a delivery mechanism for flaccid double entendres, trumped-up sitcom couple squabbles, and soupy makeups; it makes absolutely nothing of its thrilling, frightening, topsy-bottomsy backdrop.
This is, frankly, a surprise. Read, in his compact but promising debut Dream of a Burning Boy at Roundabout Underground, showed green shoots of courage, an ornery writer’s instinct to unearth the unspoken. He must understand that pornography today isn’t a sticky stack of candy-colored mags under a quickie-mart counter or a grimy video parlor jammed with punning titles, frequented by men in raincoats. Yet this is precisely the Halloween-costume version of “the industry” Read has chosen to mine for laughs. Forget the Internet. Forget that porn is, basically, the dark matter binding our society together in tacit shame: Twenty years ago, it was obtainable only at some risk, even by grownups; today, it is consumed like A play coffee. Read, in fact, writes as if he’s the only man over the age of 11 and under the age of 96 who isn’t watching porn. He’s operating at a very safe distance, and a draught of cold, cock-withering irrelevance blows through his sparse comic strategems.
That’s not to say he can’t execute a joke. He can and does, with some frequency, and he’s assisted by director Evan Cabnet, who keeps the creakier joints of the comic carpentry from creaking too loudly. “Everybody fucks,” proclaims the aging, Ron Jeremy–esque Chuck Wood (a delightful Henry Winkler, who delivers every line as if he’s hosting a Friars Club roast), “so if you’re the best at fucking, you’re the best human being.” And it’s impossible not to laugh when the priceless Ari Graynor, playing sensitive, jealous fuck-queen Peeps, delivers a major announcement to husband Mandrew: “I am a MILF now, okay? I am going to be the MILF of your child.”
Not bad. But in sum, it’s merely good TV writing, without disciplined TV structure. There’s not enough story even to sustain The Performers’ slender 90 minutes, and West bends his characters into all sorts of pretzels to fulfill basic comic payoffs. The porn actors are universally stupid and prone to vaudevillean mishearings: “How’s your mom doing?” “She’s in remission.” “She’s in Michigan?” (Hey-o, who’s a playwright gotta fuck to get a rimshot around here?) Mandrew, oddly, has a preexisting relationship with straitlaced Lee and Lee’s even-more-straitlaced fiancée, Sarah (Alicia Silverstone, looking vaguely pained): They know each other from high school, because this helps explain prudish Lee’s comfort level with the sexual anarchy around him. Never mind that this preexisting relationship adds nothing, makes little sense, and clutters the board unnecessarily.
Truth be told, nothing feels entirely necessary in The Performers. Why is Mandrew named Mandrew? Straight male porn stars don’t have names like “Mandrew.” (Jackson has a prime physique more in line with the requirements of gay porn, but Read, beyond one intriguing little feint near the top of the show, doesn’t go There, or anywhere near There.) So Mandrew is Mandrew because and only because “Mandrew” is funny to say — at least, the first sixteen times. And The Performers is acceptably funny, too, if you disconnect most of your brain, including the part connected to your genitals. Believe me, you won’t need ’em: Light disdain and affectionate superiority toward cartoon sex dolls with crotches Barbie-smooth is all that’s required of you. Sex comedy — even in gelded, rom-com form — probably ought to pump something carnal out of the subconscious. Read, it seems, is too busy drilling for corn.
The Performers is running open-ended (heh-heh) at the Longacre (heh-heh) Theatre (heh?).