By MARK PEIKERT
For better or worse, Broadway currently has a reputation as the home of family-friendly musicals, film adaptations, and prestigious British imports. So when it was announced that playwright David West Read was coming to the Longacre Theatre with The Performers, a comedy set in the porn industry, quite a few eyebrows went skyward. Adult film stars named Mandrew and Chuck Wood are hardly your typical fare on the Great White Way, particularly when they're competing at the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas.
"I still have this vague suspicion that it might all be an elaborate practical joke," Read says with a laugh. "As the joke becomes more expensive, I think, 'OK, they're really in it.'"
Starring Jenni Barber, Daniel Breaker, Ari Graynor, Cheyenne Jackson, Alicia Silverstone, and Henry Winkler, The Performers (now in previews) has a sexy premise that's supported by an ad campaign featuring in a skimpy gladiator costume. Engaged couple Lee (Breaker) and Sara (Silverstone) are in Vegas while Lee works on a story about the industry's newest superstar Mandrew (Jackson), who is feuding with the legendary Chuck Wood (Winkler). And Mandrew's wife Peeps (Graynor) has some major issues with her own rival, Sundown LeMay (Barber)---particularly regarding her new breast implants.
But despite these naughty details, Read's script is more concerned with charting the meaning of romantic and platonic relationships, even in the most outlandish of situations.
"The characters are people we relate to," he says. "It's not about making audiences feel uncomfortable. I think what seems salacious and risqué on the way in becomes surprisingly sweet and sensitive as the play unfolds. But I have also structured the play in such a way that if you can get through the first five minutes, you're good to go. If anyone is offended, they can get out fast and maybe the audience can move a few rows down, like at a Yankees game."
Though no one involved with the production has asked Read to tone down his material---those first five minutes included---the inveterate rewriter has seen his play go through multiple drafts all the same. Originally written in the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwrights program at Juilliard, Read's intention was to write a play he'd enjoy working on, never contemplating the complicated staging his multiple sets would require. The hotel rooms and bars are all still in place, but some genders have been switched and one character excised completely. As Read says, the only things that have remained intact are "the setup, the location and the emotional journey."
In one instance, a cast member influenced Read's rewriting. Silverstone was the last actor to join the company, and her role had gone through several changes before she came on board. "When I thought of her, the part [of Sara] suddenly came into focus for me," Read says. "What's so great about [Silverstone] is she is beautiful and sexy, but she's playing this character who in the context of the adult porn world is something of an innocent. She's just a fish out of water in this play."
Director Evan Cabnet also had a hand in Read's revisions, and he praises the playwright's collaborative abilities. "Something that he does as well if not better than anyone I've ever seen is that he's able to take what you're telling him and incorporate it without compromising his voice or his ideas," Cabnet says. "Most of the notes I gave were structural or about character arcs." One of those notes regarded a scene that originally featured a character that was cut during rehearsals. However, the scene was necessary for logistical reasons, so Read found a way to retool it and continue the play's "forward motion," as Cabnet says.
Other rewrites were grounded in what happened once the pressure of drumming up financial backing was off and the hard work of rehearsals had begun. "When you're doing a reading and trying to drum up interest, it feels like have to crank up the pace and hit every single beat," Read says. "But when you're at rehearsal, you can relax. I have done very little rewriting in rehearsals because I did so much before we started. Now it's about tweaking, polishing and tightening."
Mark Peikert is the New York Bureau Chief of Back Stage