The Full Monty: Television?ro;”If Good Television?ro;”Comes to Broadway

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The Full Monty, in case you've been orbiting Saturn, is a British phrase meaning totally naked. It is also, again for planetary vacationers, the title of a $3.5 million 1997 movie about unemployed British steelworkers who try to raise their spirits and some cash by becoming strippers, which surprised everyone by earning $256 million. As I walked up to the Eugene O'Neill Theater to attend the new musical based on this film and saw the title in huge burlesque-style lights, I suddenly saw the slyness of the producers' decision to stick with this riskily foreign phrase. Smack in the middle of Giuliani's cleaned-up, viceless theater district, a marquee is now installed on a respectable building that basically reads "ALL NUDE!!!"

By the time this review appears, The Full Monty will have settled in for a run to the end of this year and beyond. It deserves the good fortune as much as any of the other undemanding entertainments currently on offer around it. Its appeal is in no small measure the product of a string of clever planning decisions?the first of which was to transport the action from Sheffield, in England's industrial north, to Buffalo, NY. This allowed the characters to become objects of identification on Broadway in a much broader and more intimate way than would've been possible with a British setting.

The second clever decision was the choice of a little-known composer/lyricist named David Yazbek, who is young enough not to possess a domineering style yet. The movie, let's remember, isn't a musical, though it does contain music and dancing. Yazbek's humbly pleasant pop, rock and soul tunes, with wonderfully gritty, down-to-earth lyrics, are the ideal magnifier for Full Monty's homespun atmosphere, because they never contradict or overwhelm the essence of the blue-collar characters. The challenge?ably met?was to keep those characters consistently entertaining without ever making them seem implausibly skilled.

The Full Monty isn't an important or innovative film in any serious sense, though it obviously has wide appeal. The potential appeal of this musical is even wider. Its attraction for gay New Yorkers hardly needs mentioning, but the show also shrewdly plays to two sides of the straight political fence. The story could be read as a paean to marriage, since several monogamous ones are rescued in it, and also as a tale of tolerance, since Jerry, the lead character (played by Patrick Wilson), starts out reflexively violent toward gays, then ends up with a pair of gay friends. Book writer Terrence McNally deserves credit for walking this difficult and characteristically American line. He has made the evening feel as familiar as television, and mostly without seeming to pander. Everyone either is or knows someone who is just like these bumbling, ordinary guys, who are made to seem so fun and interesting, and everyone leaves the theater feeling they could actually do what they've seen and enjoyed.

In some ways, the musical The Full Monty is more comfortable in its skin than the film was. The film had trouble arriving at a steady seriocomic tone, as the characters were introduced in situations so seriously and realistically grave (such as attempted suicide and a breakdown of trust between a father and his 12-year-old son) that their heavy shadow couldn't be adequately lifted by either the lighthearted background music or the antics in the strip-show rehearsals. A stage musical has no use for such filmic realism, so whatever gravity this story possesses is buoyant from the beginning. The attempted suicide of the character Malcolm (Jason Danieley), for instance, takes place in a silly model car and leads directly into a deliciously sarcastic song about despair begun by Jerry: "Let's find a rock/I mean a big-ass rock/or maybe something like a cinderblock is better/I'll hoist it up/and drop it on your buddy." The adaptors also shrank the role of Nathan, Jerry's son (played by Thomas Michael Fiss and Nicholas Cutro in alternation), happily lifting a cloying cloud, since Nathan's facial expressions were used persistently in the film as a gauge of Jerry's progress from self-contempt to self-respect.

The show does betray a trace of nervousness concerning how a bunch of steelworkers, most of whom have probably never been to a theater, could believably put together a knockout burlesque number in two weeks, with nothing to guide them but the evening-dance-class experience of their former foreman and the "natural talent" (ahem) of the sole black man among them. A showbiz war-horse character named Jeanette Burmeister (Kathleen Freeman) has been added, showing up out of nowhere to offer free piano accompaniment, professional advice and to drop names and self-deprecatory humor. The conception of the Act I finale is also a bit condescending?a "basketball dance" implying that the only way American men could possibly grasp the concept of fluid body movement is by imitating Michael Jordan's shooting moves.

It's a testimony to the skill of director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell that none of this irritates in any major way. Most of what one takes away from The Full Monty is delight at the variety and sparkle its makers found in ordinariness and ineptitude. All of the principal actors are excellent, in particular Wilson, Andre De Shields as Noah ("Horse") Simmons, Marcus Neville as Harold Nichols and John Ellison Conlee as Dave Bukatinsky, the token fat guy. The female roles are much less developed, but some actresses nevertheless also stand out: Emily Skinner as Harold's wife Vicki, Annie Golden as Dave's wife Georgie and Lisa Datz as Jerry's ex-wife Pam. John Arnone's set struck me at first as unhelpfully drab?dominated by dull green cardboard panels bent to look like corrugated metal and flanked by orange girders, partial streetlamps and a smokestack backdrop?but as the show progressed, Howell Binkley's lighting added the needed vibrancy. The Full Monty is so honestly and smartly put together, it makes you want to see virtues in its imperfections, and that's rare indeed on Broadway.

Eugene O'Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B'way), 239-6200, through Jan. 28.

Juno and The Paycock By Sean O'Casey

Written in 1924, Juno and the Paycock is the middle play in what has come to be known as Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy: a series of tragicomic dramas set during years of violence and unrest after the Easter Uprising of 1916, which rescued the Abbey theater financially and temporarily made it seem like a literary powerhouse again. O'Casey wrote indelibly about the slums, tenements and underclass of Dublin; he was spoken of as the spiritual heir to J.M. Synge (who died in 1909) until he was run out of town (after the 1926 riots provoked by Plough and the Stars) by indignant former fans who never understood the deflation of myth and mindless social tradition that had been central to his works all along.

I've often felt guilty for not liking O'Casey more than I do. I appreciate him intellectually?he has moral complexity, important historical settings, memorable characters?but in performance his plots strike me as drearily predictable. At their worst, they're simplistically melodramatic, seeded with leaden hints like, "I expect the first cheque for a couple o' hundhred [sic] any day." I can imagine that his characterizations could supply sufficient complexity and surprise to keep media-age minds from leaping disastrously ahead if a production were cast with first-rate Irish actors (authentic accents being crucial in work where the mellifluousness of the language is so central). Unfortunately, such actors seem to have been mostly unavailable for this Roundabout Theater Co. production directed by John Crowley.

Juno tells the story of the ruin of the Boyle family during the Irish civil war of 1922. The comic shiftlessness of the strutting "Captain" Boyle (the "peacock" or "paycock" of the title) and his sponging friend Joxer is played off a background of desperate poverty, senseless revenge killings and the more gradual and "sensible" moral compromises of an array of subsidiary figures. Crowley does have one terrific Irish actress named Dearbhla Molloy playing the Captain's wife Juno, and the scene near the end when she has the stage to herself is the most moving in the show. Other highlights include the marvelously dilapidated living-room set designed by Rae Smith, Gretchen Cleevely's proudly pert portrayal of the Boyles' daughter Mary, and a generally effective air of menace and superstition surrounding the bursts of sectarian violence.

The main trouble is that Jim Norton, the actor playing the Captain, is devoid of charm and confidence?neither quite funny nor annoying enough to make his decisive provocations clear. Thomas Jay Ryan as Joxer is more convincingly slimy, but neither he nor anyone else can seem to maintain a believable brogue, much less hold it up to Molloy's. Liam Craig gives the stiffest and most implausibly Irish performance of all as Charles Bentham, the unscrupulous schoolteacher who knocks up Mary, playing him as a stony-faced, undifferentiated villain-in-plaid whom Mary'd have to be a moron to trust.

Middling actors and prejudices about O'Casey aside, though, the most serious problem with this production is that it makes no case whatsoever for the play's revival in our place and time. Conceived as a political work, Juno now joins the ranks of Arms and the Man, The Rainmaker, The Deep Blue Sea, The Lion in Winter, The Man Who Came to Dinner and all the other classics and pseudo-classics the Roundabout has produced over the years with the tacit guarantee that they will be utterly unprovocative and inoffensive to its subscribers.

Gramercy Theater, 127 E. 23rd St. (betw. Lexington & Park Ave. S.), 777-4900 or 307-4100, through Dec. 24.

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