As Ms. Aguilera sang, “You are beautiful in every single way. Yes, words can’t bring you down, oh no!“ She’s right, of course… but in our American culture at least, it’s often hard for many of us to overcome the mixed messages about beauty we get from the media in its various varieties. From those Dove ads that target women, to the endless parade of perfect bodies on display in gay male mags, we get conflicting messages: The powers that be preach that we should embrace our bodies for what they are, while simultaneously hawking their skin creams or whatever else they‘re selling. For oft-theorized reasons, females and gay men are usually affected by this dichotomy the most.
Beauty (internal and external), as well as the way we see ourselves, plays a big role in J. Julian Christopher‘s provocative two-actor play “Man Boobs”. However, there’s much more going on for one of these two characters than media-fostered insecurity alone. Directed by Web Begole, “Man Boobs” opens with two big, beary guys– Marty and Spence– ostensibly coming home to Spence’s apartment for a night of carnal man-to-man sex. Marty (Robert Valin) is a hot-to-trot, rough-talking truck driver who loves to share stories about his sexual adventures at highway rest stops– the fantasies from which those vintage Joe Gage porn flicks were made. (Twenty guys in between two trucks? Whoa! Where‘s my invite?) Marty is also probably smarter and more sensitive than he presents himself to be. Librarian Spence (Jeffrey Marx) is more reserved, more tightly wound, and possibly more comfortable with books than with people. We learn that “The Metamorphosis”, by Franz Kafka, is one of his favorites. We also learn that Marty and Spence have hooked up in the past– but the differences in their personalities is about as vast as can be. Those differences make for a lot of the humor in the first half of “Man Boobs“. Marty wants Spence in a “so-bad-it-hurts” sorta way. Spence, while craving companionship, is clearly holding back physically and emotionally. Why? As many of the audience members anticipate the answer to “Will they or won’t they?!”, that recurrent phenomenon of body image raises its head. That, in turn, leads to more serious and more deeply-engrained issues which explode from one of the two men like an unattended pressure cooker. The effect on the theater attendees is clearly palpable; at some points during the emotional climax of “Man Boobs”, not a single sound could be heard from the audience.
Both actors deliver superb performances. As the unapologetically coarse trucker Marty, bedroom-eyed Robert Valin delivers most of the play’s funniest lines, and has the more zesty role in the first half. (A crowd-pleasing highlight is seeing Valin, clad only in a jockstrap, sprawled out on the bed reading “Metamorphosis” with tongue clearly in cheek.) As “Man Boobs“ segues from comedy to deep drama, Jeffrey Marx as Spence takes the center stage– and his emotionally naked performance is sometimes painfully difficult to watch. To put it another way, both actors have their unique moment in the spotlight. It is always a challenge to create a two-character play and keep it from becoming static or “stagey“– but “Man Boobs” succeeds in maintaining its momentum throughout. Indeed, serious themes are explored in this play, but the funny moments prevent the piece from ever becoming too overwhelmingly heavy. It’s a credit to the playwright, the director, and the actors that humor and tragedy-colored drama can exist side by side… to the level that the playwright can insert a comedic one-liner right in the middle of a highly dramatic scene and make it work. Overall, “Man Boobs” packs a wallop.
J. Julian Christopher’s “Man Boobs” is playing as part of The 8th Annual Fresh Fruit Festival at The Cherry Lane Studio Theater, 38 Commerce Street, NYC. The final performance is Saturday, July 24th at 2:30PM. For ticket information, visit http://www.FreshFruitFestival.com.