Heart of the Schlub 

"The Full Monty" celebrates the average guy in a glorious production at the Barksdale.

Through its dark humor and rousing songs, "Monty" offers an unflinching portrayal of modern-day Archie Bunkers in all their glory — pudgy, petulant, moderately clueless, but endearingly inept, both emotionally and physically.

Borrowing the story line from the hit British movie, the musical "Monty" moves the action to Buffalo, where the closing of an industrial plant has left dozens of guys jobless, dejected and depressed. Jerry (David Winning) is particularly desperate because his inability to pay child support puts visitation rights with his son (Dylan Moon) in jeopardy. He hatches a plan to get a group of guys together to perform as strippers. In an effort to maximize the payoff for their one-night show, he decides his crew will take it all off, or go "full monty."

Jerry's recruitment efforts are hilarious as he auditions potential dancers both indescribably bad (Derek Phipps in a great slapstick turn) and surprisingly accomplished (Harrison White as "Horse" in the show-stopping number, "Big Black Man"). Skill is not usually the deciding factor: Malcolm (Ford Flannagan) is brought on for his access to a rehearsal space, Ethan (Barry James) for his, ahem, equipment. Between the guys' general lack of rhythm and a bevy of last-minute complications, the show is in constant danger of falling apart. When the boys finally drop trou, it's a riotous delight.

Though the strippers eventually number six, Jerry and his best buddy, Dave (Jay Lusteck), form the emotional core of the show, and both Winning and Lusteck are exceptional. The two project a genuine camaraderie that is both charming and comic. Both are given outstanding women to play off of as well. Jacqueline O'Connor displays compelling flashes of anger and sadness as Jerry's ex-wife, Pam, and Janine Russo is both saucy and tender as Dave's wife, Georgie.

They are just the standouts in the remarkable cast assembled by director Steve Perigard, who does a fine job modulating the pace so that the show's two-and-a-half hours fly by. Perigard also makes good use of an innovative stage design by Joel Sherry that revolves around a center turntable, allowing quick transitions from settings as varied as a suburban living room and a strip-club bathroom. Both musical director Deborah Lynch and choreographer K Strong acquit themselves nicely. Their work dovetails most forcefully in the final striptease with the well-synchronized crew bumping and grinding through the rollicking "Let It Go."

Credit must be given to playwright Terrence McNally, whose book ably mixes melancholy amid the mirth. Composer/lyricist David Yazbek reaches new heights of inventiveness, rhyming words like "bonus" and "cajones" in the midst of clever melodies. With songs both uproariously gross, like "Big-Ass Rock," and insightfully inspirational, like "Michael Jordan's Ball," Yazbek exposes the heart and soul of the regular guy. And the guys onstage, well, they expose everything else. S

"The Full Monty" plays Wednesday through Sunday until Aug. 13 at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. Tickets are $34-$38. For more information, call 282-2620.

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