Gorilla

nytheatre.com review by Pamela Butler
May 29, 2013

Men are not gorillas which is both a good thing, and perhaps an unfortunate thing.  Gorillas are pretty mild mannered, relaxed and somewhat boring when they’re just going about their daily business.  I know because I volunteer at the Bronx Zoo and see those boys on a regular basis.  There are even all male troupes of gorillas who can get along, but that’s under condition there are no females involved. If there are females, it’s only one gorilla per territory or the ruling alpha male will fight to the defeat or even death of any challengers.  There will be no teamwork among gorillas when females are around.

The setting here is five businessmen, a team, away on a final weekend retreat to improve their team-working skills.  The company is suffering in the bad economy and needs help. Lillian, smartly played by Jennifer Dorr White, is their Human Resources guide who will help them, through exercises and games, to get them to work better together.  At least that’s the idea.  And her boss, the overseer of the project, is the aptly named Thrasher, a sharp featured Tullen Holmqvist, who looks like she might carry a ruler or a riding crop in her briefcase.

The men are first engaged in remembering and sharing the most memorable moments in their lives  that they can think of, and in each case the memories illuminate the man.  What we have here is some distracted, bored, unimaginative and classically macho guys who clearly are not happy playing these therapy games nor do they seem to see any purpose in them. I have to agree with them.

Frustrated, at one point, Lillian calls them a bunch of gorillas because they do not cooperate with her and don’t seem to get past the concerns of their own skins.  So? This is news?

Robert, (L.J. Ganser)  handsome, silver haired and a ladies’ man, seems to feel secure in his position, perhaps as alpha male, while Stephen (Oliver Burns) is undermined by troubles with his wife. Owen (Albert Bendix) watches over the books and lusts after one of the others, which inadvertently causes him to uncover his loved one’s unfortunate misconduct.   Ernest (Alfred Gingold) and Lawrence (Khris Lewin) are bland and mediocre characters who have funny things to say but there’s not much drama in their situations.

The playwright, Rhea Leman, is an award winner in Denmark, but what I sampled here seemed bland and unimaginative. My taste is for a more pointed, spicier dish.  The men are on a team building retreat.  But are they? And what is the purpose of the games they play except to give latitude for clichéd humor, ribbing and infantile behavior.  None of them change nor is there any suggestion of how they might.

Things might be better served with a livelier pace and more actively focused staging, but director Ari Edelson lets the actors get away with being sloppy and loose, moving awkwardly and at a flaccid tempo. There are serious things at stake here but it doesn’t feel that way.

If the idea is to suggest the action of real gorillas in their everyday lives, which only a scientist or naturalist would find engaging for more than a few minutes, that is accomplished. But art doesn’t necessarily work by directly copying nature.

This  scene is no doubt repeated in many companies struggling to stay cutting edge and profitable, where men are men and victim to their animal instincts and needs but so, what of it?  I’ve been there, and seen more interesting, colorful men play out the same dynamic over and over again.  Isn’t history and the current state of the world evidence enough of how stupidly men can act and always have acted?   It would be nice for a change to see some glimmer of hope that there are solutions to the problems of modern men in their unenlightened animal pursuit of sex and power.

The production is functional; the set (Julia Przedmokska) is corporate sterile, the costumes (Christine Kahler) fit the idea of tasteless businessmen and power wielding females, and the lighting (Miriam Crowe) adds the washed out fluorescent pallor of an  efficient but economical  workroom. Dan Renkin, the fight director, sees to it that the grappling apes do not come to personal harm when they get physical and Joe Lankheet gives effective sound support.

There are a lot of pretty funny exchanges here, but they’re adrift in a tedious and oft repeated story.  To compare these men to gorillas is an insult to gorillas. Not one of them comes close to the magnificence of a male silverback. To my mind, the gorillas, who live and let live,  come out on top.

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