After a hiatus brought on by its founder’s recent health issues and a last-minute licensing snafu, Nearly Naked Theatre is back.
Its stage return, Duncan Pflaster’s snappy The Underpants Godot, is a precise example of the smart, provocative, and tatty productions with which this decades-old company has made its name. Its subject matter, in fact, is a Roman à clef for Nearly Naked’s approach to theater, as Pflaster’s sometimes preachy play wonders about the artistic merit in selling tickets with the promise of scantily clad hunks.
This multilayered comic tale concerns a little-theater production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for which director Doug (Jason M. Hammond) has costumed his entire cast in underclothes.
The guys are running through Act One on a cut-rate set (itself an amusing visual joke by Nearly Naked founder Damon Dering and scenic artist Paul Wilson) when Tara (Amie Bjorklumd), a rep from the Beckett estate, turns up. She may be there to shut the production down for taking too many artistic liberties, like Doug’s wonky prop and tighty-whitey costume changes.
Tara really draws the line at a more-than-implied romance between Vladimir and Estragon. While Doug wins the arty argument (with a stirring speech about how no one likes Shakespeare and nudity sells tickets), the last word goes to Tara, who may or may not let the show go on.
The two leads were not, on preview night, ready to front a play. Daniel Zemeida and Chase Zenier, as the backstage lovers playing that romanticized version of Vladimir and Estragon, remembered all their lines and hit each of their marks, but the Beckett history lesson and the commentary on theater remained somewhere out of their reach.
In sharp contrast to these plodding characterizations was Christopher Dozier’s charming turn as Pozzo. Neatly confident and smartly preening, he overcame unfortunate costuming (a bright-red union suit with the seat undone) and shone during each minute onstage.
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The best performance, however, belongs to Hammond as the short-tempered black-box director whose cast won’t listen and who’s dogged, perilously close to opening night, by a Beckett purist. His witty spleen-venting about the quality and value of theater are fueled with drama but never not funny.
Should plays be left entirely alone? Is it better to have an updated Twelfth Night than none at all? And what is the point of theater, exactly? The Underpants Godot sermonizes a bit too much on these topics, and only a thespian or a Beckett scholar will appreciate its finer details, like the control his estate exerts over productions of Beckett’s work.
The fact that this play will appeal to two diverse audiences — theater aficionados and those content to sit through anything in which men run around in their underwear — is, as produced by this particular company, a meta message within a meta message. It’s also a welcome return from an old theatrical friend.