Call out the bomb squad! Connoisseurs of see-it-or-regret-it theatrical disasters will want to make tracks to the Longacre Theater, and fast, to catch “Prymate,” the last and the least of the season’s Broadway offerings. Mark Medoff’s woozy play mixes a supposedly probing animal-rights and medical-ethics debate with a tale of love and lust among an oddly assorted social set: two middle-aged scientists (one deaf), a comely sign-language interpreter and a horny gorilla. Or was it an ape? Whatever. Aiming earnestly at provocative, “Prymate” is merely — and yet spectacularly — ludicrous.
The set by Robert Steinberg, depicting a strangely well-appointed outpost in “the wilderness of southwestern New Mexico,” appears to be an exact replica of a faux habitat in a natural history museum, built to showcase the latest in the taxidermist’s art. This proves to be unexpectedly apt, for while they are a lot more animated than the stuffed inhabitants of such climes, the humans in “Prymate” are hardly more lifelike. A play is in serious trouble when the most sensitively written character onstage moves on all fours and has a vocabulary of about 400 signed words.
This would be Graham, the gorilla played by Andre de Shields, who has been saved from the perils of scientific research by his loving caretaker Esther (Phyllis Frelich). Esther, “the famous linguist-anthropologist,” essentially kidnapped Graham from the lab of her ex-lover, Avrum (James Naughton), an AIDS researcher. (One must conclude that Simian Workers Local 1 was asleep at the wheel as poor Graham was being conscripted for double duty in the realm of science.)
The cozy little domestic menage established by Graham and Esther is threatened when Avrum arrives from over the bluff, seeking to drag the primate back to the lab and Esther back to bed.
Since Esther is hearing-impaired and Graham communicates only through his limited repertoire of signs (including one for “foreplay,” I’m here to tell you), Avrum has, fortunately for the audience, brought along Allison (Heather Tom) to interpret for all. Then again, perhaps it’s not so fortunate; the play would be more palatable for the hearing members of the audience if Medoff’s coarse-grained dialogue were not actually spoken. It is hardly improved by the monotone delivery of Tom, a TV soap actress.
Like it or not, Tom laboriously translates every last, limp witticism in the interplay between Esther and Avrum, which moves in sitcomic fashion from feisty antagonism to shared remembrances of their past. It also takes in some seriously strange byways: Folks itching to learn the sign language for useful queries such as “Whose toes did I suck?” and “What happened to that leopard-skin thong I bought you?” have come to the right show.
But such tender intimacies are only intermittent. Perhaps due to her co-habitation with another species, Esther appears to have picked up some strange habits: She greets her ex by giving his hand a fierce bite, and later engages in her preferred brand of foreplay by squeezing his nipples until he yelps. Meantime, Graham takes a shine to Allison, although his social skills aren’t much more polished than Esther’s. “Want touch breast girl,” he signs, shortly after they are introduced.
One of Medoff’s ambitions is, clearly, to examine how mating rituals of these two species both diverge and coalesce, to dissect those dark urges that unite all species. Given that the various couplings exhibited here — Esther and Avrum, Avrum and Allison, and, yes, Graham and Allison — are all about as erotically stimulating as a Levitra commercial, the natural conclusion is that both species should just give up the nasty business, forthwith.
Nor are the play’s intellectual discussions invigorating. Medoff presumably wants us to think hard about the moral dilemmas inherent in the use of animals for scientific research. But, aside from fur-hating PETA freaks who are likely to be the play’s only sympathetic aud, few would concur with Esther’s bold assertion that the search for an AIDS cure is as nothing weighed against the prospect of curtailing the golden years of one asthmatic gorilla. “Should his research be more important than mine?” she whines to Allison. “Take the $100 million a year spent on AIDS research and convince stupid goddamn human beings to use clean needles and condoms.”
Then again, the Nobel-hungry Avrum isn’t the most persuasive spokesman for the value of AIDS research either, given as he is to ruminating thusly: “Sometimes I wonder if AIDS is nature’s way of dealing with human folly since we’re unable — or won’t — do it ourselves. If the species is to survive past the midpoint of this new century, there will have to be selective genocide.”
With scientists like these, who needs fundamentalists?
As befits a play of such flagrantly muddled ideas, the plot takes a series of increasingly sensational turns that are too deliciously absurd to disclose. And director Edwin Sherin’s cast delivers them each with the theatrical equivalent of a straight face — although Frelich, a Tony winner for Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” mugs so insistently that her face is all too rarely immobile. It’s a sadly strained performance, in bewildering contrast to her far subtler work, on a smaller scale, in the season’s earlier revival of “Big River,” featuring both deaf and hearing actors.
But none of the performers escapes with dignity fully intact here. Certainly not Naughton, who gives a performance so wooden you half expect Graham to start stripping the bark off to make a meal of him.
Pre-opening controversy has, of course, focused on the disquieting implications of an African-American actor portraying a gorilla. And the sight of de Shields scampering around on hands and knees, screeching shrilly, is indeed initially unsettling. But he must be given credit for the perf’s persuasiveness and integrity — even if there are a few occasions on which this gorilla evinces suspiciously well-honed comic instincts. And to take offense at de Shields’ casting is like complaining that you’re seasick when the ship is sinking.