Belly Up to the Proscenium

The Playhouse at West Port Plaza offers a little deep thinking with your beer drinking

Defending the Caveman

Playhouse at West Port Plaza; 635 West Port Plaza (second level), Page Avenue and I-270

Call 314-469-7529.

For a theater, the Playhouse at West Port Plaza is a pretty good bar. Sandwiched amid three watering holes on the second level of the mall, the Playhouse itself seems intent on getting its patrons well lubricated, from the patio bar outside to the "drink menu" insert contained in the program, to the bar inside the theater where audience members can purchase libations during the show.

And purchase they do. In fact, if you're planning an excursion to the Playhouse, consider copping a seat close to the stage, lest your view be blocked by the parade of drink seekers marching back and forth in front of you. While we're at it, be prepared for myriad other distractions -- staff and audience cell phones ringing, constant noise from the halls outside, and the thumping bass line from the amplified technopop played at The Drunken Fish next door (great sushi, loud music).

But there's something else happening at the Playhouse besides drinking and noise. Something like...a show? As a play, Defending the Caveman is pretty good stand-up comedy -- especially for married couples who embody stereotypic gender roles. The solo character is a married guy trying to defend all men from disdain. "It's not that guys are assholes," he explains. "They just come from a different culture." Think Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus meets Home Improvement and you'll understand the philosophy of the piece: Women and men have different histories, different languages, different everything -- but that's okay. Creator and original performer Rob Becker's main metaphor is the life of the cave man. In his romanticized revisionist history, cave people were a model society: They respected and honored gender differences. The cave woman was a worker of magic, a gatherer of useful information; the cave man was a protector, a hunter of useful things. Nobody called the cave woman a bitch; nobody called the cave man an asshole (perhaps because language hadn't yet been invented?).

This production's Caveman is Kevin Burke -- a jolly gee-whiz kind of guy reminiscent of Jim Belushi or John Candy. Becker's material has been adapted to fit Burke's life, so that Burke is able to refer to his own wife as he gives examples of modern-day hunting-and-gathering activities. His contrast of male and female styles of shopping is very funny, as is his description of male hobbies (fishing and baseball) versus female hobbies (shopping and talking). And Burke handles the theater's noisy nightclub atmosphere well, though he did have to stop and "shush" a portion of the audience that was having a loud discussion irrelevant to the play.

Unfortunately the material doesn't really build -- it's more of a list of jokes: a section on kid's games (boys play "kill the one with the ball," while girls play "house"), a section on cleaning habits, a section on history, etc. And while Burke is energetic and interesting to watch, he doesn't show much vocal or physical variety.

Audience reaction varied from bored twentysomethings who left midway through to fortyish couples who laughed until they cried. The gentleman next to me kept intoning "yeah" every minute or so, as Burke's descriptions hit home.

Becker began performing the show in 1991, and it went on to become the longest-running solo play in Broadway history. What's the secret of its success? It supports traditional gender roles while being completely inoffensive to either heterosexual men or women. (If you're gay or not traditional in your gender behavior, you're apparently not even on the radar screen.) It's a very safe show for the audience who can afford tickets to see it -- there's just enough swearing to make it "adult" but nothing shocking to make it unpleasant.

In other words, it's a stand-up comedy, sitcom mentality, stage play "experience" without the pesky problems of character relationships, plot or suspension of disbelief. Burke is essentially playing Burke -- a guy like lots of guys, talking directly to the audience about true-life situations and pointing out our humorous human failings. If that sounds like your cup of tequila, you'll find it in ample supply.

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