From left, Kellie Dunlap, Johanna Carlisle, B. Connor Verhoeven, and David Weiss in The Naked Eye
From left, Kellie Dunlap, Johanna Carlisle, B. Connor Verhoeven, and David Weiss in The Naked Eye
Laura Durant

Paul Rudnick's The Naked Eye at Nearly Naked Theatre: A Weird Old Play with Lots of Laughs

It's often possible to take a work of dramatic literature that's simply dated -- i.e., very much of the time when it was created, to the extent that it seems weird and awkward now -- present it in a reverentially historically accurate setting, and help communicate the atmosphere or the issues of the original. It's also possible to try to do that and fail.

But some plays simply don't stand the test of time, because perhaps they weren't all that good to begin with, or because the resources it would take to make them work are so hard to come by. A little of both those hurdles apply to Nearly Naked Theatre's mounting of Paul Rudnick's The Naked Eye.

All I mean by that is that the production's uneven quality is not entirely a drawback NNT could have addressed even under the best of circumstances. Yet the show's full of great comic moments, and they're fairly well-played and enjoyable; the large audiences don't seem to feel cheated.

Paul Rudnick's The Naked Eye at Nearly Naked Theatre: A Weird Old Play with Lots of Laughs
Nearly Naked Theatre

The two main stumbling blocks are the script and the cast. While Johanna Carlisle, Andréa Morales, and especially David Weiss do their usual excellent work as a Republican U.S. Senator running for governor of New York (Weiss) and his family, their characters are bizarrely volatile (honestly, does it make sense for absolutely every person onstage to have a life-altering epiphany in what's presented as about a 12-hour period?), with motives that are far too challenging to discern. I lost track of what tit was being bartered for which tat early on, and then it kept changing, as far as I could tell.

I feel particularly sorry for Carlisle, who's a gifted enough performer to mask the stink of nearly anything, as well as an attractive woman who is almost never made to look good onstage, even when it would make sense for her character to look terrific, feminine, and sexy, as it would here. Costume designer Doug Loynd's Act II red evening gown for Carlisle's Nan Bemis is lovely, but it can't make up for the terrible roadkill wig she sports with it, her hideous underdone makeup, or the flimsy, unpressed representation of a Chanel suit she has to wear in Act I.

Some of the other actors are downright bad, which may have nothing to do with why some of their bios are missing from the program or appear there with pseudonyms. However, they bring lots of energy to their performances (I'm thinking they're merely inexperienced), and director Damon Dering did a good job of corralling the members of the ensemble into a group that interacts sincerely and with good nature.

The play is of interest, even with its flaws, because it does say some things about art, politics, and gay culture and activism in the late 1980s that we're already forgetting -- attitudes that our current focus-group-driven, YouTube-shoutin', divide-and-conquer leaders have worked hard to erase. For instance (and I'm trying not to spoil what plot there is, so if you really care, you might want to skip down to the next paragraph), one very conservative public figure decides it's not just reasonable and right but actually strategically useful to embrace the gay community. Before he's elected. It's bittersweet nostalgia (and still, somehow, hard to buy -- and I was there).

And the jokes still play beautifully. For example, Weiss' Pete Bemiss says of/to his constituents, "Even if some of us came here on the Mayflower . . . some in chains . . . and some -- how did gay people get here?" "Flight attendants," another character answers. Maybe the subject matter is just too heavy to mesh with Rudnick's usual glib, rapid-fire approach to dialogue, but I think The Naked Eye is more like one of those early-career misfires that shouldn't necessarily get revived, despite the writer's notoriety and the adults-only full nudity incorporated into the action.

I don't believe those are the two main reasons NNT chose the script for this season, but unfortunately, those are the attributes that couldn't be screwed up. The script is nominally about art vs. obscenity, public vs. private, self-deceit vs. living authentically, but this production doesn't make any of that deeply felt. It might be possible. It's hard to tell.

The Naked Eye continues through Saturday, December 10, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. For tickets, $21.50 to $30.50, click here or call 602-254-2151.

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