Presented by Michael Parva, Chase Mishkin, Leonard Soloway, in association with Debra Black, at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48 St., NYC. Opened May 5, closed May 8 after five performances.
"Prymate," Mark Medoff's first Broadway play since "Children of a Lesser God," is both fascinating and frustrating. Its theme, the moralities of both science and love, is not only worthy but opens up unexplored avenues of investigation. However, in loading the dice in his melodrama, Medoff has diluted his message and the credibility of his story.
This is Medoff's fifth association with actress Phyllis Frelich and makes use of her unique talents as America's premier deaf actress. She plays Esther, an anthropologist who has taught American Sign Language to Graham, a gorilla. When her lover, AIDS researcher Avrum (James Naughton), wanted to infect Graham with the AIDS virus in order to field test his theories, she disappeared into the mountains of New Mexico.
The play begins on the day Avrum and Allison (Heather Tom), a sign-language interpreter, have located Esther's camp. Complicating things further, Allison is HIV positive and furious that although Avrum is looking for a cure, he doesn't know anyone with the virus. Graham's sexual needs mean neither woman is quite safe. The real issue here ought to be whether or not Graham is just a laboratory gorilla. Has his ability to sign made him unique?
In a stunning performance, André De Shields makes us see a gorilla, though he wears no special costume. However, since Frelich and De Shields must be translated for the hearing audience, much of the play is delivered in a staccato monotone, often word by word. Director Edwin Sherin has been unable to make this less artificial until the last third of the play. Naughton's usual charisma deserts him playing the least defined role, while Tom's role for almost half of the evening is simply to translate back and forth. Ironically, Frelich's body language is so expressive that a translator is hardly necessary.