Originally created 05/06/04

A strange, overwrought and unlikely 'Prymate'



NEW YORK -- Oh, my. What is one to make of Mark Medoff's "Prymate," the strangest play of this waning Broadway season? Also, the most overwrought.

There are not many reflective moments in Medoff's unlikely drama, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre. Recrimination seems to be the main topic of conversation, whether that talk is spoken or delivered in American Sign Language.

Our combatants are two scientists: Esther, a deaf anthropologist (played by Phyllis Frelich), and Avrum, an ambitious geneticist (James Naughton) who has his eye on the Nobel Prize. At one time, they were lovers. Now, they just fight.

Their quarrel is over an aging, sickly, 350-pound gorilla named Graham, a creature spirited away by Esther and now living with her in the New Mexico wilderness. Avrum wants him back in the lab where he can use the animal in AIDS research. Esther has bigger dreams for the ape; she has taught him a bit of sign language.

What makes all this more than a little unusual is that Graham is played by a black actor, Andre De Shields, best known for his roles in such musicals as "The Wiz" and "Ain't Misbehavin'."

At first, it's startling and more than a bit unnerving to see De Shields grunt, grimace and then scamper around the stage on all fours, perpetuating what could be mistaken for racial stereotypes. Yet the actor, dressed in a dark T-shirt and shorts and wearing black leather shoes and gloves, artfully shucks off such hateful images.

De Shields has always had a graceful presence, and he uses his innate physicality and gift for mime to bring the gorilla to life.

Alas, Medoff, author of the Tony-winning "Children of a Lesser God" and "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder," has more on his mind in director Edwin Sherin's hyper, melodramatic production.

Among other things, "Prymate" wants to be taken seriously as a debate about the ethics of animal testing, but the arguments start at such a high pitch that they have nowhere to go - except up in decibel level.

The play's more thought-provoking aspects are forever overwhelmed by the plot's sudsier aspects, which includes the introduction of an interpreter named Allison eather Tom). She's a nubile young woman with innumerable body piercings and a wild past that plays an important role in the evening's ludicrous conclusion.

Allison has come along to translate Esther's signings for Avrum and gets caught in their bitter crossfire. She also attracts the attention of Graham, whose advances, at one point, get quite sexual. Their resolution can't be described here. Let's just say we've come a long way from the days of King Kong and Fay Wray.

Medoff's dialogue is unsubtle, often crude and, what's worse, unbelievable.

Naughton gives a blustery performance as the unlikable Avrum, and Frelich is equally agitated as Esther. Tom seems stymied by her preposterous role, which is more plot point than real person. Only De Shields manages to maintain his dignity. He's the most human creature in this theatrically primitive "Prymate."