Three Men and a Maybe

In the musical comedy Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, currently playing at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, three actors with energy to burn work admirably hard. Dan Kelley, Terrell Hardcastle, and Kevin Bogan sing, dance, and sweat their way through two acts and twenty-four musical numbers about a trio of twentysomething comedians who ride a rocket to stardom in the Eighties, only to crash when they finally hit it big. Under Amy London's ardent direction, the actors move eagerly from scene to scene, using their strong singing voices to belt out solos and ensemble tunes; they also whip up credible camaraderie. It's hard not to applaud their enthusiasm, but it's also hard to sit through the show's scrambled story line and ho-hum humor. Ultimately, Jerry Colker's confusing book and predictable lyrics and Michael Rupert's unremarkable music diminish the efforts of these three talented guys.

Although bloated with plot twists and an inexhaustible number of cultural references beloved by baby boomers, Three Guys proves seriously undernourished in narrative depth and character development. Much happens -- but too often we don't know why. Questions are raised about the pitfalls of success, about the insecurity that lies behind a comedian's need to make the masses laugh, about mental illness, and about friendship, but the answers to those questions are never satisfyingly probed. And the characters, while sketched with a lot of surface details, for the most part do not extend beyond caricature. Director London does elicit moments of welcome subtlety from her actors, particularly from Hardcastle, who heartbreakingly portrays an endearing but troubled young man. Unfortunately, London's decision to pace the evening at a relentlessly upbeat tempo overrides those occasional interludes, and underscores the superficiality of the show's writing.

"The time is the 1980s," announces a voice-over at the beginning of the show as slides of Ronald Reagan flash against the stage's back walls. Bounding out from the wings with the irrepressible good cheer of a golden retriever comes Ted (Kelley), the MC of Komedy Klub East, a New York City haunt that caters to budding comics masochistic enough to stand up in front of strangers to score some laughs. Ted regales the audience with mildly amusing schtick, sings of his longing to make it in the big time, and introduces the first performer in the club's lineup that evening.

Phil, we learn, through the intentionally schizophrenic number "Angry Guy/Lovely Day," is a pissed-off kind of dude with a fondness for using baseball bats to crack the kneecaps of people he doesn't like. (This is funny?) He quit law school to make it as a comedian, and now his girlfriend is pregnant. (Could this be why he's so mad?) Occasionally, according to the "Lovely Day" segment of his introductory aria, he puts aside his rage in order to stop and smell the roses. But he always returns to his anger, and on this particular evening he has a convenient focus for it. During Phil's bit another comedian named Kenny (Hardcastle), oblivious to the fact that someone else has the microphone, staggers on and off the stage in a meaningless fashion, each time wearing a different bizarre costume.

Kenny, it turns out, has a tenuous hold on reality. During his stand-up routine, delivered during the solo number "Operator," the character reveals himself as someone who can't always distinguish between his wacked-out stage persona and his actual self. But he does have a guardian angel in the form of Ted, who considers Kenny his best friend and intends to include him in his plans for fame and fortune. Enlisting Kenny and Phil as partners in a comedy act, Ted lands them a spot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Act One ends as the guys nervously prepare what they hope will be a killer set.

Granted, that synopsis doesn't sound garbled when spelled out, but trust me -- I extracted it from a hellish amount of exposition, imparted mostly through sentimental or cryptic song lyrics instead of dialogue. Mercifully, Act Two unfolds more coherently. On the Tonight Show, the comedy routine blows away the live audience, millions of television viewers, and Johnny himself, and the boys find themselves besieged by agents. They agree to star in Hello Fellas, a television sitcom about three undercover cops who dress in drag. The show shoots to the number one slot in America, but working on it leaves the trio exhausted, humiliated, and disillusioned. Desperate to do their own material again instead of toeing the television-network line, they produce their own movie, Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down. It bombs; Ted, Phil, and Kenny are forced to reassess their priorities. By the end of the musical, each has made either a bittersweet or a tragic choice regarding his future.

As an ensemble, the three reach the top of their form during a number in which they impersonate six different agents, each one slimier than the other. Hardcastle possesses a melodious voice, a talent for mimicry, and an effortless stage presence, all of which he brings to his interpretation of Kenny, despite the often juvenile material written for this character. As Ted, the most grounded member of the trio, Kelley sometimes pushes a bit too hard, yet he allows Ted authentic moments of caring for Kenny. As Phil, Bogan sports an appealingly rich voice, although he proves less convincing than his compatriots. Admittedly, his character is not supposed to win any congeniality awards; the character is also saddled with one of the more irritating lines I've heard on-stage in awhile. It screams "written by a man" from a hundred miles away, and it also exemplifies the over-generalized writing that is the bane of this entire show: Describing how his wife gave birth to their first child, Bogan, as Phil, says, "And together we did a natural childbirth delivery without a hitch." Hmmm. I wonder what the wife has to say about that.

Occasionally, Three Guys glimmers with a genuine idea about the corrupting lure of fame or the darkness lurking behind a comedian's grin. Hardly new concepts, each has been explored with revelatory results by others, including Martin Scorsese in the film The King of Comedy, Heinrich Bsll in the novel The Clown, and Julian Barry in the play Lenny. Perhaps creators Colker and Rupert didn't feel up to the task of exploring what other artists have already tackled brilliantly. They chose instead to chronicle the insecure yet exhilarating world of stand-up comedy by being frenetically offbeat. Unfortunately, offbeat here translates into obscure. The result, despite a hard-working cast, is an incomprehensible musical fiasco.

Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down.
Book and lyrics by Jerry Colker; music by Michael Rupert; directed by Amy London; with Dan Kelley, Terrell Hardcastle, and Kevin Bogan. Through July 28. For information, call 929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.


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