You've Got Male

Borderlands Theater explores the men's movement.

Like the four characters in its current show, Borderlands Theater is wandering off in a new direction. For perhaps the first time in its history, the company is presenting a play about straight, middle-aged white guys.

Perhaps the only nod to diversity is that the characters were originally Canadians, those misunderstood people who, if they didn't use silly English spelling conventions and pronounce "about" like "a boat," could be mistaken for natives of Indiana.

To add a little borderland color, Borderlands has moved Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw's The Wild Guys to a wilderness in Arizona. Now the guys in question talk about places like Winkelman and Scottsdale instead of Medicine Hat or Beaverdell or whatever other points of interest speckled the original Great White North version. And instead of tramping around some cool coniferous forest, the guys trudge through a place that looks like a cross between the outskirts of Sedona and Monument Valley, although a press release claims it's the White Mountains.

Scenic designer Jon Longhoffer has done an excellent job of giving an Arizona feel to this otherwise generic satire about men trying to move closer to their manliness.

The other mainstream comedy that opened last weekend, Table Manners at Live Theatre Workshop (see accompanying review), comes straight out of the Anglo-French farce tradition, driven by unique characters ricocheting off each other. The Wild Guys, in contrast, derives more from the North American sitcom tradition, driven by character types (rather than individuals) flailing at whatever situation they confront. The Wild Guys is funny, no doubt about it, but its Beautiful Downtown Burbank conventions may less readily please theater snobs than potatoes who've just rolled off the couch.

Here's the setup: A men's weekend retreat in the wilderness is organized by Andy, a men's-movement advocate and, apparently, a grocery-chain mogul (think Eddie Basha with fire in the belly). He's asked along his friends Randall, a skeptical lawyer, and Robin, a Sensitive New Age Guy trying to find his wild side. He's also secured as wilderness guide a naïve young produce manager from one of his stores, the hopelessly conventional, sweatsocks-in-excelsis Stewart.

Naturally, the four immediately get lost, and must survive on nothing but their wits (dulled by society's conflicting notions of masculinity, from Father Knows Best to Iron John) and a backpack full of beer.

They must also grapple with challenging terrain and their own fears--of heights, of water, of bears, of inadequacy, of intimacy, of emotion. They do this by every 30 seconds hurling a punch line into the dark, mildewed abyss of the guy soul.

In the course of this lost weekend, naturally, each man comes to terms, kicking and screaming, with what ails him. You just know there will be a few tears in the play's last beats before some goofy variation on the obligatory group hug at the end, but watching these guys stumble through the script's mechanics toward their assured redemption remains great fun.

Director Chris Wilken sends the cast traipsing up, down and all around a fine outdoorsy set designed by Longhoffer, perfect except for its too-obvious bisection by a man-made ramp and steps.

That cast is dominated by Brent Gibbs as Robin, the self-involved but sincere New Ager whose life revolves around creative visualization, crystal fondling and ceremonial drumming anywhere he thinks a harmonic convergence may be, well, converging. Gibbs is a delight to watch, whether he's complaining about people who aren't "normal" while doing yoga in the middle of nowhere, or silently reacting to the unevolved men around him, mouth agape and eyebrows locked in what looks like a rather painful form of tantric sex.

Kent Sorensen as the sage Andy cuts a gently paternal figure through much of the play, intellectualizing and theorizing every effort to get in touch with his feelings, and finally coming into his own during his inevitable moment of crisis near the end.

Patrick Burke's Stewart, whose idea of a "guys' weekend" involves not meditating but drinking and throwing up, is a nice all-American dork who probably wears his jock strap a little too tight. Dwayne Palmer as lawyer Andy was a little slow to warm up on opening night, but made up for it in his many well-pointed moments of exasperated cynicism.

So where, exactly, do playwrights Wreggitt and Shaw stand on all this men's movement folderol? Poet turned masculinist Robert Bly and his compatriots are easy targets of satire, but Wreggitt and Shaw do seem to sympathize with individual men's need to figure out their place in the world. Even so, if this kicking and scratching and hollering in the wilderness is all that we guys who grew up in matriarchal, absent-father households have to look forward to, I want my mommy.