That Funny Hat Trick

The first question many people ask about The Full Monty at the Miracle Theatre is not if the play is any good but if the male performers actually bare their tackle.

The answer is yes.

This Broadway musical — showing at Actors' Playhouse through April 9 — is based on the 1997 film of the same name. And for anyone unfamiliar with British slang, "the full monty" means "the whole amount." In the context of a male strip show, which is essentially what this production is about, the phrase describes the antics of six average-looking men who cast off their unmentionables and reel in some serious shrieks in the process — though it's unclear if the ruckus in the auditorium during the climax of Friday's opening-night performance conveyed comical delight, orgasmic joy, or just plain horror.

Now that we have the stripping part out of the way, let's move on to what seems to be the second-most popular question; again, not if the play is any good — that comes later — but if you can actually see anything. I was blessed with an unobstructed, panoramic view of the stage for the all-revealing finale thanks to the entire row of patrons in front of me who abandoned the performance during intermission. Even so, the answer is: not really. Let me rephrase: I have the distinct impression the audience is not supposed to see. And we wouldn't have had it not been for an embarrassing two-second delay between the boys' baring their bits under a harsh spotlight and the total darkness of the final curtain. Needless to say, it left little to the imagination.

But though the evening begins and ends with a striptease, The Full Monty deals with more than bare-chested hip-thrusting. Unlike the Academy Award-nominated movie, which traces the lives of some broke blokes and their birds trying to make ends meet in the north of England, the stage version takes place in the working-class suburbs of Buffalo, New York. A group of former factory workers — led by Jerry (Tally Sessions) and his overweight friend Dave (played to perfection by Eric Leviton) — find themselves out of work and down on their luck. Behind on his child support payments and strapped for cash, Jerry is given an ultimatum: Pay up within two weeks or lose joint custody of his son. Unable to find a sufficiently lucrative job, Jerry hatches a far-fetched plan. After seeing huge crowds of women pay top dollar to watch male strippers shed everything but their skivvies, this unlikely duo assembles a six-man team of regular Joes and schedules an amateur evening of seduction: a one-night-only performance in which they promise to venture where the Chippendales don't. They vow to strip down to the full monty.

OK, the plot may be contrived — male losers turn to amateur stripping and win the heart of a town. And the action evolves in a formulaic and predictable fashion, but Terence McNally's book brings to life a host of prevalent issues, including the shallowness of our image-obsessed society, racial stereotypes, and homosexuality in a late plot twist. And it does so in a unique, lighthearted way that is guaranteed to make you leave smiling — if not blushing. That is, provided you can sit through the lengthy — and at times dull — first act. Though some of the initial scenes are packed with hilarious one-liners, others play out with the candidness of a cheesy soap opera. And Sessions' propensity to overact makes the occasional soapy style that much more difficult to swallow.

However, meshing delightfully with the book are 16 or so spunky musical numbers peppered throughout the production. Composed by David Yazbek, the songs combine catchy pop tunes with some downright funny everyday lyrics that make The Full Monty a humorous crowd pleaser. Belted out by the vocally competent 23-member troupe and accompanied by a live orchestra, the score helps move the show along even during its lesser moments. Among the more memorable songs is the darkly comical "Big Ass Rock," in which two of the characters offer to kill a third as an act of friendship. Also noteworthy is "Michael Jordan's Ball," which unfolds at the end of Act One as the rhythmically challenged group learns to dance. Although you won't be humming the tune on the way home, you will remember the inventive and playful choreography the number spawns.

Under David Arisco's energetic direction, the talented players give solid performances that combine to make a strong supporting ensemble. As the lovable Dave, Leviton is charmingly natural onstage and delivers his lines with a winning wit. The play's upper-middle-management figure, Harold Nichols (played by the charismatic Vincent D'Elia), and his free-spending wife, Vicki (Stacy Schwartz), eloquently bridge the gap between the classes and help illuminate the pains and joys associated with married life. Also noteworthy is Reggie Whitehead as the Horse, who is ever-worried about living up to the stereotypical nickname.

The Full Monty may be vulgar, crude, and crass, but it is also fun and hugely entertaining, a show that baits you with its energy and hooks you with its wit. Chances are you'll be flailing like a fish and gasping for air by the time the curtain falls.

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Joanne Green