The Ensemble Theatre is bringing the '70s golden age of black TV sitcoms to the stage with its revival of Don Evans's One Monkey Don't Stop No Show. As an amalgam of all that came before, Evans's 1980 audience-friendly comedy is a little like watching a live television show without commercial interruptions although you can tell just where they'd be slotted in.
Monkey has the rhythms of a golden-oldie TV show. It's a tad on the languid side, facilitating both plot complications and individual moments for the large cast of characters. It also has the annoying habit of quickly changing character motivation, as if we'd missed an entire season in the series. But if you can get past the clanking mechanics of plot development with its single, one-track movement, you'll have a rousing good time. The play is so soft and cuddly, its predictability is welcome and expected. There's no need to flash "applause" signs at us or even to add a laugh track 30-some years of watching television comedy has conditioned us to react with appropriate gusto. Monkey's such a throwback to gentler times a pre-MTV age before nervous camerawork, psychotic editing and smutty content that we immediately sit back and relax into it. The show's like Archie Bunker's comfortable, ratty lounger: safe and warm.
Reverend Avery Harrison (Charles Jackson), his wife Myra (BeBe Wilson) and his son Felix (Kendrick Brown) have moved on up to a white suburb of Philadelphia. Myra wants to get as far away from her roots as possible with her tony book-of-the-month club, perfectly placed cushions and her dog Frou-Frou, who always remains barking offstage. She demands propriety and manners, even when she can't pronounce them. Wilson gets easy laughs from her constant malapropisms.
Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Through July 15. $18-$27.
This being a classic sitcom, Avery's at that middle age in a man's life when he doubts his potency. He could use some good lovin', but Myra has that down to an unchangeable schedule. "Stop actin' a fool," she chastises her long-suffering husband when he puts the moves on her after finding Felix's copy of The Joy of Sex.
Nerdy Felix has his own problems. "I'm a virgin, minus one," he confesses. He falls for Lil' Bits Caldwell (Raena White), an earthy downtown gal who now may or may not be pregnant. Wanting to break out and get down with the bros, Felix willingly gives up his middle-class life to move in with his first and only girlfriend. But street-smart Mama Caldwell (Tracey Wheat) has other plans for her daughter. She too wants to move uptown, and Felix is her ticket.
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Then there is Beverly (Teacake Ferguson), Avery's niece. She arrives after her father's untimely demise; Dad's dying wish was that she'd become the ward of his old business partner, sexy Caleb (Benjamin J. Cain, Jr.). Caleb doesn't want to be burdened by country hick Beverly, who has an unspoken crush on him, but she's heir to two-thirds of his nightclub, so he's got to take her in. But tutored by Caleb's ex-girlfriend, hot-hot-hot Mozelle (the equally hot-hot-hot Cheray Dawn Josiah), Beverly undergoes the most amazing transformation since Eliza Doolittle morphed into a fair lady. Ferguson becomes so glam and unrecognizable, her entrance evokes approving gasps from the audience. Silky Caleb is instantly smitten, but must woo her away from all those rich white suitors falling at her well-heeled feet.
One thing that sets Monkey apart from those '70s shows is the use of character soliloquies directed right to the audience. This device gives the play a veneer of seriousness and intent that the plot's basic comic bones can't flesh out. Sometimes they work, but usually they don't, especially when the characters' inner thoughts contradict what we've seen them do. Without proper setup, these "true" inner voices seem arbitrary and out of place, more an author's afterthought.
Nevertheless, all complications are tied up in a neat, happy ending, just as they are in TV land. The game cast goes for it with abandon, and if Emmy awards were presented to stage shows, all actors would be honored. Director Wayne DeHart, a brilliant actor himself, keeps the action in constant motion and the laughs building. He knows when to give his actors the limelight. Especially appealing is Brown's physical-comedy routine as horny egghead Felix. Confiding to uncle Caleb of his being "a tiger inside," and wallowing in a fantasy scene of Crisco-slathered beauties, he comically slides across Myra's sofa in an ultra-smooth ballet move that Lucille Ball would have envied.
If you're addicted to Nick at Night programming, One Monkey will delight you with its comic throwbacks to an earlier era. You can't TiVo this show, but there's really no need to. You saw it and committed it to memory many, many years ago.