Full-Monty Fever

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New York theatergoers are a sophisticated bunch, so nobody in the audience makes much of a peep when half a dozen actors playing baseball players in Take Me Out parade onstage, drop their towels and take a shower. Richard Greenberg's off-Broadway play is about the discomfort caused among his teammates when a star center fielder publicly reveals that he is gay. And it's hardly news anymore that actors can take their clothes off onstage — hasn't been since the kids in Hair came out in the buff to celebrate the Age of Aquarius. No, it's perfectly in keeping with the play's theme, nothing to get exercised about. Still, if you will pardon a noncritical reaction for a moment: Those guys are naked!

Nudity seems to be everywhere in the theater these days, and it's not just the usual flashes of breasts and buttocks. Nicole Kidman got headlines a few years ago for shedding her clothes in David Hare's The Blue Room, and Kathleen Turner is doing the same right now as Mrs. Robinson in a lame Broadway adaptation of The Graduate. But these actresses are glimpsed fleetingly, through low light and coy angles. Today it's the men who are letting it all hang out.

The Full Monty is really just a tease — the male strippers bare all at the end of the Broadway musical as blinding stage lights prevent the audience from seeing anything — but a well-traveled off-Broadway theatergoer these days is starting to feel like a voyeur in a Chelsea bathhouse. In just the past few months, we have had a naked Frankenstein's creature (Monster), a naked undercover cop (Blue Surge) and naked just about everybody (Mnemonic). Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci play a full-frontal nude scene at the start of the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Falco covers up fairly quickly, but Tucci flounces around for another five minutes.) Now entering its third year off-Broadway is Naked Boys Singing, a musical revue that is pretty much what it sounds like. Then there's that loony off-Broadway novelty — squeamish readers might want to stop here — called Puppetry of the Penis, in which a pair of Australians manipulate their organs into bizarre shapes, while a video camera projects the results on a big screen.

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Is this progress? Is it necessary? The writers and directors involved in the more serious of these works argue that the nudity is justified and quite natural. "My theme is emotional honesty," says McNally of Frankie and Johnny, a play about a couple who sleep together and then grope toward a relationship. "Nudity is the right metaphor for what the play is about." Greenberg says he is "surprised that so much attention is being paid" to the nudity in Take Me Out. "Thirty-five years after Hair, it's just part of the vocabulary now, something that audiences and actors find acceptable." Indeed, of the 70 or 80 actors who auditioned for the roles, Greenberg says, "only one passed on the basis of the nudity." Actors seem far more willing to bare it all onstage — up close and personal — than they are in movies, where it's still rare to see a name actor display his attributes.

That's probably the secret of nudity's appeal. For all the soft-core skin that Hollywood has foisted on us over the years, full male nudity remains one of the last taboos, a way to rattle the blue-hairs and reassure the critics that theater can still be avant-garde. Yet it's hard not to regard much of this casual nudity as a little desperate, not to mention distracting. In Hair, the nudity made a statement about an uptight society. Even in a play like Six Degrees of Separation — in which a young man who has conned his way into a rich couple's home is discovered in bed with a male hustler — the shock of nudity seems appropriate. But the full-monty shower scenes in Take Me Out are Greenberg's showy effort to bring some locker-room credibility to a play whose arch, way-too-articulate ballplayers sound about as convincing as Yogi Berra singing opera. The new nude scenes aren't knocking down barriers anymore. They're just making the audience stare in the wrong direction.