David West Read’s porn-industry comedy The Performers, helmed by Evan Cabnet in his Broadway directorial debut and featuring Henry Winkler, Alicia Silverstone, and Cheyenne Jackson as a man-child adult film star, is the funniest thing I’ve seen in some time. The playwright has honed a precision-lowbrow type of humor, a mixture of crude sexual jokes and bright relationship comedy that succeeds through a combination of smooth, quick pacing and pinpoint delivery.
A comedy in both senses of the word, the play is spicily and broadly funny but also traces two relationships that surmount troubles to shine with optimism in the end. Mr. Jackson plays Mandrew, a vain young porn star brimming with confidence he’ll win a coveted award at an impending adult video awards ceremony. As his porn-star wife, the scratchy-voiced redhead Peeps, Ari Graynor nearly steals the show ascending into high dudgeon upon discovering Mandrew has broken the cardinal rule of porn life: while of course you can have sex on camera with anyone you’re cast with, you may kiss no one but your real-life love.
Along with two other porn stars, the topographically enhanced Sundown LeMay (Jenni Barber) and the aging Jewish eminence grise Chuck Wood (Henry Winkler) – a character presumably inspired partly by Ron Jeremy – we meet Mandrew’s high school friend Lee (Daniel Breaker of Passing Strange), a straight-laced tabloid journalist doing a story on Mandrew, and Lee’s math-teacher wife Sara (Ms. Silverstone), mousy but secretly blowzy. As these two more-or-less innocents are separately drawn into the glitzy everything-on-the-surface world of the porn industry, they take us merrily along for the ride, and the play becomes at the same time an affectionate tribute to and mockery of that primary-colors world. Winkler’s acceptance speech, Peeps’s and Sara’s bonding scene, and the fast-paced interview session between Lee and Mandrew are a few of the highlights, but there’s a consistent flow through the play’s 90-minute single act; the action never flags, and I laughed out loud more than I have in months.
These six colorful personalities are caricatures and characters at the same time, and that’s a neat trick on the playwright’s part. Flouncing, moping, preening, and whining about, they yet make us care about them and appreciate their real development. In this Mr. Read fulfills yet another time-honored dramatic convention: that the main characters(s) should grow in some way. Most notable is Mr. Jackson, whose personality and humor sweep the stage clean as the charismatic and boastful yet sensitive and insecure Mandrew. Jackson has become a genuine Broadway star, the type that’s rare today, funny and just plain magnetic. While the show isn’t appropriate for children or those sensitive to crude sexual content, it’s a fabulous vehicle for him, a tightly spun showcase for the rest of the cast, and a smashing Broadway breakout for Mr. Read and Mr. Cabnet too.
The Performers is at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. For tickets and more information visit the show’s website.