I've often admired playwright Michael Grady's work, and Nearly Naked Theatre has staged some of the best theater I've seen in the last couple of years. Imagine my surprise and disappointment to discover a subpar production of Grady's Baylin's Monster at Nearly Naked last weekend.
It seemed like a perfect match: Grady's zany play about the travails of small-town commerce, produced by a company devoted to irreverent, offbeat material. But artistic director Damon Dering, who directed this production, has made a valiant effort and mostly failed with this tricky comedy.
Baylin's Monster is a sophisticated comedy told as a series of blackouts an ambitious, intelligent script full of wonderfully sarcastic humor and a cast of hilarious hillbilly stereotypes. The play premièred at Phoenix College in 1991, with Dering in the role of the mayor, a part he reprises here with great style.
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Baylin's may be the first musical without a score, a distinction planned by Grady to encourage non-singers to perform his play. It's up to the cast to make up the melodies to Grady's songs in each production, a notion that can lead to some tuneful laughs or some cheerless song styling. Nearly Naked's production has both.
A 14-person cast brings us the citizens of Baylin, a fictional Mississippi swamp town that fills its coffers with tourism dollars. Lately, the good people of Baylin have been lunch for a carnivorous monster that lives in its swamp.
The media has descended including network reporter Larry Farrell, a former Baylinite looking to break the Baylin story, and the townsfolk are scrambling to hide their 60-foot monster. Or are they?
It's a joyous experience to watch Paulina Glider breathe life into another quirky gal gone wrong. This time she's Suzi, the town trollop who may or may not have seen a swamp monster. She's hot for our hero, Larry Farrell (Joshua Ian, a Robert Downey Jr. look-alike who plays comic angst like a pro), whose mother spotted the monster gobbling her neighbors.
Joy Stimple makes a humdinger of Mom Farrell's big speech about a monster born of crooked commerce, and she captured many of the few laughs squeaked out by the audience on the night I saw the show.
Her performance is rivaled by Ty Marshal's Yancy, a demented singer who's obsessed with musical theater star Richard Kiley; and by Dering's delightful mayor, equal parts Sydney Greenstreet and Polly Holliday, a combination of camp and cool Southern charm.
Unfortunately, Dering's direction is less winning. His players perform at different tempos, and several of them turn up as hackneyed Hee-Haw oddballs. Many of Grady's smarter lyrics are lost to the potholed delivery of the players here, which obscures several plot points and is just plain annoying.
Dering does best with goofy television commercials for used cars and "Monster Chess Sets," but these bits aren't enough to save what's ultimately a longish evening with only a handful of high points.
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On the night I attended, the audience was either not up to the challenge of seeing past the lopsided production, or they just didn't care; many of the better laugh lines fell flat, and most of them were met with silence.
Dering's director's notes in the playbill praise Phoenix audiences for "getting" Nearly Naked's last few peculiar plays, which he confesses he wasn't sure we were ready for.
I imagine we'll all be accused of not "getting" Baylin's Monster, but in order to be gotten, this complicated and stylish play requires a diversely talented cast, one that can sing and sell jokes with equal aplomb. In the end, Nearly Naked's production of Baylin's Monster just isn't monstrous enough.