Emerging Artists Theater doesn’t always do it justice, but “The Play About the Naked Guy” is still tasty, trashy fun. David Bell’s satire of the New York theater community is both merciless and egalitarian, flogging earnest nonprofits as fiercely as money-grubbing commercial producers. Some auds will find the show too cynical and others will think its jokes are too inside, but for world-weary artists and the people who love them, it might be just the tonic.
Bell’s humor is furious, as though he’s so angry about the state of American drama he must skewer everything he loathes, even if it means upending his own plot. The resulting play is far from well made, but it’s sustained by wild energy.
Chaos ensues immediately, when we see a painfully clunky performance by a group of actors dressed in tacky period costumes. They speak in poorly rhymed couplets and bad European accents until one of them gives birth, reaching under her skirt to pull out a slimy plastic baby.
Turns out this “lost classic” has been revived by the Integrity Players, a group of artistes who believe they are changing lives, even while grossing $90 a night.
Sharp comic perfs underline how these people are cracked. “Master thespian” Harold (Wayne Henry) finds himself so brilliant that he takes theatrical asides to comment on his real-life conversations. Artistic director Dan (Jason Schuchman) bounces like a puppy when he imagines Integrity’s next snoozer of a show.
The funniest player, though, is Dan’s wife Amanda (Stacy Mayer), who gets kinky thrills from servicing her husband’s artistic vision. She coos about making “Daddy” happy, and when she tries to hold her lust inside, she’s hilarious.
But while these “live for your art” types are grotesque, they are tame next to the commercial theater people.
As it happens, Integrity needs a hit in order to stay afloat, and rich, shriekingly gay producer Eddie (Christopher Borg) needs a venue for his latest project. After succeeding with a show called “Naked Boys Running Around Naked” — wonder what that’s a reference to? — Eddie has decided to build an entire production around the endowments of porn star Kit Swagger (Dan Amboyer). Flanked by two catty minions (Christopher Sloan and Chad Austin), he descends on the struggling artists.
Unsurprisingly, Integrity and profit are a match made in hell, and as the two camps bicker, Bell delivers a slew of great zingers. Personal favorite: When Eddie explains that no one makes a living in serious legit, he says, “You know who I saw tap dancing for quarters on the Times Square subway platform? Marian Seldes! I dropped $5 in her bucket and looked the other way.”
That line is funnier because Borg seems so aghast, and overall, the cast’s relentless sincerity enhances the freak-show vibe. For instance, when Eddie decides his show will be a nudie tribute to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” Mayer’s honest excitement makes the moment even zanier.
But director Tom Wojtunik often dilutes the ensemble’s impact. He’s clearly overwhelmed by the Baruch Performing Arts Center’s massive stage, so he keeps his actors far apart in order to fill the space. But the distance slows the rapid-fire bits, since actors must race to each other just to make bitchy comments. Simply using less playing space would have been a better solution.
At least the final scene, in which Kit uses a personal revelation to inform his portrayal of the Messiah, is flawless. Bell lets a few characters change their points of view, but his message is the same: Most artists deserve to be deflated. Even those who disagree with that argument may be forced to laugh about it.