The news that Mark Medoff’s Prymate , a play about a gorilla named Graham, has closed on Broadway after only five performances isn’t too surprising. The astonishing thing is how it got produced in the first place. Here are the notes I made after staggering home from the Longacre Theatre in disbelief at all I had seen:
It would take total genius to make a play about a gorilla work. What odds for Prymate ? Remember to name the producers.
It was originally produced by Florida State University School of Theater, Tallahassee, Florida.
Prymate is misspelt. Unless intended as a pun. Prying mate? It makes no sense.
The gorilla is named Graham. Dullish name for a gorilla. Think of Jane Goodall and her famous chimp, Fifi, mother of Freud and Frodo.
Graham is played by André De Shields. There’s controversy about a black actor playing a gorilla. Why didn’t they cast a white actor?
De Shields is a beloved performer in musicals. ( Ain’t Misbehavin’ , The Wiz .) What’s he doing in this? Believes in role. Look up interview in Times about him studying with gorilla behavior specialist to prepare for role.
Truism: All actors have to believe in the roles they play. If not, they can’t act them. Same for plays. I never met an actor who didn’t love the play he’s acting in.
Relief De Shields doesn’t wear gorilla outfit. Appears in shorts and baggy T-shirt. Keeps dignity somehow. Close call during masturbation scene. Graham-an aging gorilla, uses inhaler when over-exerted. Emphysema? Walks on all fours. Hoots. When upset, hugs little dolly. Dolly looks like miniature ape.
Graham has been taught rudimentary sign language by deaf-mute anthropologist, Esther, played by deaf actress Phyllis Frelich. Esther, late middle age, has run off with him to New Mexico wilderness. She’s fleeing husband-Dr. Avrum Belasco, 59, two-time Nobel nominee, evil experimenter on apes. Wants to save Graham from evil Avrum. Sees him as her “moral and maternal responsibility.”
Maternal? Who will believe her line, “I left because you wanted to kill my child!”?
Opening scene: Gorilla perched on cardboard mountain in New Mexico. Esther busy in cabin below. Thunder. Graham descends hooting. Dances and jives with Esther. Trouble breathing. Inhaler needed.
Avrum suddenly turns up with young, blond sign interpreter, Allison Alexkovsky-Wilcox, to repossess Graham and take him back to the ape lab for research into cure for AIDS. Avrum played by two-time Tony winner James Naughton, who looks stunned throughout. Has to say the line: “Mrs. Wilcox, there may be a difference between chimps and gorillas. There are over three billion nucleotides in the primate genome. My predecessors have missed something that I intend to find through gene sequencing.”
Allison is played by soap star Heather Tom. Gorilla fancies Allison. So does Avrum. Trouble ahead.
Avrum and wife obviously hate each other. Passionate love scene between them makes no sense. The spark Is Still There!
Peculiar jokes about labia rings, codpieces, sucking toes, jerking off, crotch-sniffing. “Serious” play; Borscht Belt.
ESTHER: What did he tell you about me?
ALLISON: That you’re a famous linguist-anthropologist.
ESTHER: Or a cunning-linguist-anthropologist ….
Esther is meant to be feisty and independent. But she’s merely flighty and vulgar. Phyllis Frelich overacts. Nobody onstage reveals an inner life or even intelligence-except in glimmers, the gorilla. Coarseness is the play’s tone. Dr. Avrum complains semi-comically about his weak bladder, severe arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and “testosterone deficiency”. It’s meant to make him appealing. To whom?
Esther refers to gorilla as a “hot dude” who likes to “hump-hump-hump.” While she’s busy preparing supper, Graham pees on Allison and forces her to masturbate him. Ape rapes blonde.
Allison doesn’t seem too upset. Announces she led promiscuous life with ex-husband.
Issues in play: Should scientific experiments on primates have limits? Are gorillas a lower species or do they have feelings? Has humanity progressed? Aren’t we all just animals really? And how are you today?
Sample dialogue between battling Avrum and Esther:
“What are we, savages?”
“Who knows where his mouth has been?”
“You’re not God! You’re just an evil human being!”
“This obsessive affection you have for him is a non-casual psychosis!”
“Is this you? Is this you who was under the skin of the person who lay inside me all those nights?”
“Sweetheart, I am this close [to] mapping the genetic code of a dozen primate phyla.”
“You were inhaling me, swallowing me whole. All I could think about was my crotch.”
“I should have told a lot of guys off instead of sucking them off.”
“We can’t all be as purely driven as you, enhancing communication among people who would be otherwise incommunicado …. ”
It turns out that Allison is H.I.V.-positive. (“So delicate. Life. So, so, delicate,” she says). Also, Avrum secretly infected Graham with the AIDS virus back at the lab.
Graham tries to drown Avrum in nearby river.
He survives to be revived by Allison straddling him in bra and panties. “Put your hands on me. I’m the fire.”
He resists. But not before she bites him on his lip to infect him with the AIDS virus in revenge for what he did to Graham. Avrum doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by this. In a happy end, sort of, he immediately reconciles with Esther for absolutely no reason. They decide to return to the lab with Graham. I wouldn’t go with them if I were him.
There’s a final sunrise tableaux of Avrum, Esther and a gorilla looking very thoughtful. As well they should. Allison can be seen prowling around on the cardboard mountain above. She seems to have become a primate.
And … curtain!