For the squirm-in-your-seat comedy of personal embarrassment, theater is far better than film at letting audiences in on the action. Which is a damn good reason for turning Lynn Shelton’s indie movie “Humpday” into the stage comedy “Straight.” Bucking the trend for pointless adherence to the original (see “Ghost,” or rather, don’t,) stage scribe D.C. Moore puts new wine into the old bottle. But although his rethink is both funny and absorbing, his shift in the driving motivation makes it less intriguingly ambiguous.
Moore Anglicizes everything and changes the characters names, but sticks with the original “Odd Couple do a porno” scenario. Former college dude Waldorf (Philip McGinley) unexpectedly reappears in the life of erstwhile best friend Lewis (Henry Pettigrew.) After backpacking for seven years, hippyesque Waldorf expects the juvenile, responsibility-free friendship to resume where it left off but Lewis is now settled and married to Morgan (Jessica Ransom.)
So far, so frictional, but after Waldorf has a one-night stand with Steph (amusingly dope-headed Jenny Rainsford) who turns out to have been in an amateur porno for a cutting-edge art festival, things go up a gear. As a cross between a dare and proof that being married doesn’t mean he’s square, Lewis drunkenly agrees to make a porno with his old chum in which they will, for the first and only time, have sex.
Following the film’s scenario, the script also mines comedy from Lewis’s bungled attempt to explain the idea to Morgan and to get her to agree. And, in the highly tense and comic second act, we see the two men confront their fear and, possibly, their fantasies in the hotel room in which they will make their film.
Moore’s neat cutting of the cast down to four characters is convenient in economic terms, but it adds to the plot contrivance. The drunken party at which the porno is set up is here less convincingly replaced by reported speech. And in the climactic scene where Shelton created fascinating, open-ended ambiguity – What are they trying to prove? Is this bravado? What is the nature of male friendship? Are they confused about their identity? – Moore narrows the focus.
Motives in his version grow less mixed. One of the men is gradually revealed to be using the situation to release a (to him) unwelcome truth about his sexuality. Cogent though that is, dramatically it’s considerably less rich and the loaded dice pull the story into one dimension.
McGinley pulls off the rare trick of managing to make Waldorf appealing while behaving appallingly. His character’s insensitivity and self-obsession threatens to be intolerable but McGinley pulls back from overplaying the self-obsession and allows worry to surface.
Nice, neatnik Pettigrew wittily wins sympathy for the plight of the uptight but risks giving too much of the game away by over-indicating the marital discord when both character and actor should be listening more to Ransom, who adds strength and patience to rather underwritten role of the wife.
Helmer Richard Wilson’s skill with mapping telling actorly detail onto a smart-mouthed script is apparent throughout, especially in the deliciously excruciating scene where the men face up to the task in, er, hand. Humor is never pushed beyond the bounds of painful truth as the two of them jockey for position, as it were, in jockey shorts.
A new final scene supplies a pay-off but, like much in this otherwise spry revamp, its closing down of possibilities makes the drama more explicable but ultimately less reverberant.