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Comedian Rob Becker, creator and star of Defending the Caveman, the longest running nonmusical solo show in the history of Broadway, has a little secret. He discovered it during the first year of his marriage and he let me in on it during a recent telephone interview from New York. Want the scoop? Lean a little closer and I'll whisper it in your ear. What's that? It's so obvious you need me to repeat it to make sure you heard it correctly? All right:
MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT!!!
Adam and Eve already knew that. So did Antony and Cleopatra, Katharina and Petruchio, Hepburn and Tracy. But here's the rub: None of them came of age in middle-class America in the 1970s, when, for one deluded moment in history, some men and women thought they could be the same.
"My wife and I grew up with the idea that when we married we could become equals by forming one gender and leaving our differences behind," Becker, age 40, explains. During the first year of their now decadelong partnership, however, fundamental dissimilarities emerged. He wanted to use the remote control to channel surf; she liked to watch one show at a time. His eyes crossed after three minutes in a store; she could shop for hours. He had an epiphany about the source of such conflicts: Men and women seem to have been raised in different cultures. "When I explained this to my wife, it helped our relationship. She began to understand me better. And she laughed."
Becker inserted a few of these observations into his stand-up comedy routine back in 1987 in San Francisco. Women, he noticed, cooperated in refilling the empty chip bowl at a party. Men negotiated about who would do the job. And he earned what he terms "an amazing reaction" from the audience. "They howled with laughter that came from the gut, unlike the laughs I was getting before." When people lined up to talk with him afterward, he knew he was on to something. "Women were saying, 'I'm so tired of being angry at men. This is such a great way to look at things.' Guys were going, 'Yeah, you explained me in ways I couldn't really articulate before.'"
Over the next few years, Becker developed the show by supplementing his personal experience with extensive reading in anthropology, mythology, psychology, and sociology. Drawing on the research of heavyweights like anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Richard Leakey, the ideas of mythologists such as Joseph Campbell, and innumerable books on goddess worship given to him by his women friends ("They warned me," he notes, "if you're going to talk about the caveman you better talk about the cavewoman, too"), the comedian shaped a 100-minute piece based on the premise that the war between the sexes dates back to prehistoric times, when men were hunters and women gatherers.
Becker unveiled Caveman at San Francisco's Improv in 1991; it played to SRO crowds for four months. Eleven bravura months in Dallas followed; he then took it to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago, where, despite mixed notices in each town, the show continued to draw enthusiastic crowds.
Caveman bounded onto Broadway in May 1995 and was promptly dismissed by many critics. From his perch at the New York Times, Vincent Canby labeled the show's style "middle-class mall humor." But Becker was tapping into something that men and women struggling to communicate with each other could relate to; as in other cities, they flocked to the production. In July 1996 Caveman broke the record Lily Tomlin had held with The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe as the longest running one-person show on the Great White Way. (Becker credits Tomlin's tour de force as an early inspiration. "She had taken stand-up comedy and turned it into theater, and I hoped that someday I could do something along those same lines.") Caveman groupies were coming back two and three times, bringing their mates, friends, families, therapists.
Their therapists? In a savvy marketing move designed to defuse negative critical response and to encourage attendance through word-of-mouth, Becker began inviting psychologists and marriage counselors to see the play for free. Dr. Anna Beth Benningfield, the president-elect of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), caught Becker's shtick for the first time in Dallas, where she has her office. "He presents issues about the differences between males and females in a way that's humorous, insightful, and respectful," Dr. Benningfield says over the phone from Texas. "I started giving my clients homework assignments to see the show. Couples would return and we would talk about what they had learned. I noticed how much tension was released when they could see themselves dealing with issues that were not just specific to them but were common to most couples living together, such as she wants to talk and he doesn't."
Benningfield was so impressed with Becker that, when he moved the production to D.C., she arranged for 300 therapists attending a leadership conference to see the show. This past November Becker traveled to Toronto to perform before 2000 therapists at AAMFT's annual conference.
It's one thing to reduce the complexities of gender differences to hunters and gatherers in a comedy show and quite another to attempt therapy with people based on such facile generalizations. Benningfield agrees that Becker's categories are simplistic, yet she sees them as helpful in promoting understanding. "People are looking for explanations. In relationships, if people can find explanations that are not entirely personalized, oftentimes they find them more acceptable. 'He's not doing this to me personally, he's doing this because he's a male and males do things like this.' That framework from the show helps cut down how reactive people can be, which is often the source of a lot of tension."
In promotional pictures the goofy-expressioned Becker sits alongside a Stone Age-style television, holding a spear, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and work boots and letting his slight paunch hang out. He looks like a contemporary cross between Fred Flintstone and Ralph Cramden. Over the phone he sounds sweet and unassuming. He insists that, despite the fact that his show's title suggests a defense of all thing brutishly male, Caveman is an affectionate comedy that heals the rifts between people. In the work he argues that men and women shouldn't try to be more like each other; they should try to understand their differences and accept each other without judgment.
Caveman has been taken to task for being little more than an extended stand-up routine. Hearing this, Becker's sweetness turns sour. "I've been amazed to hear that people who are supposed to know a lot about theater will make an ignorant comment like that."
Although the piece is performed without an intermission, Becker explains that he structured the work "in three acts, including a setup, confrontation, and resolution. I've created characters -- myself, my wife and several others -- who carry my theme forward throughout. I introduce the idea during the first 25 minutes that there's a lot of anger toward men, a lot of anger between men and women, a lot of confusion, and so forth. The second act is where I explore the two different cultures and have a visit from an older and wiser caveman, and the third act is where I resolve everything and say that I think we need to explore each other's worlds without judging them."
Becker has handed his New York baton to Michael Chiklis (star of television's The Commish), who will perform the role on Broadway while Becker hits the road. You can see for yourself if the caveman needs defending as Becker kicks off a national tour in South Florida. If the show slays you and you have kids, you can start gearing up for the next Becker event. Once the dust settles from this current success, Becker plans a new play based on life with his two toddlers. That one's to be called Cave Dad.
Defending the Caveman. Written and performed by Rob Becker. Through January 19 at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. January 21 through 26 at the Parker Playhouse. For information, call 673-7300 or see "Calendar Listings.