If ever there was proof of a successful comedy show, the screaming laughter filling Theatre on the Square at opening night of “Defending the Caveman” fit the bill. This 1990s one-man comedy on the difference between men and women might be showing its age and might not be the subtlest philosophy ever written, but there are still plenty of folks here in Tacoma that just love it, and weren’t shy about showing that love Thursday night to actor John Venable, who took every shrieking cackle in good-humored stride.
Let’s just say right out that anything that helps people think more deeply and empathetically about human differences is a good thing. Whether it also makes good comedy depends hugely on the actor involved and the state of mind of the audience. “Defending the Caveman” was written by Rob Becker in 1991, running in a couple of U.S. cities before hitting Broadway for a record-holding two-and-a-half years. It’s been on tour ever since, translated into 16 languages in 40 countries, which proves its across-the-board appeal. Basically a stand-up monologue on how men’s and women’s psychology and behavior can be traced back to a hunter versus gatherer instinct, “Caveman” alternates between a plea for each gender honoring the other and a series of see-what-I-mean clichés that everyone can relate to: why men can’t talk and drive, why women ignore logic and why a backrub just doesn’t cut it as foreplay for one gender (guess which). Yes, “Caveman” gets squarely into erogenous zones in the second half – reason enough to stay, if you’re a little bored in the first.
Which you might be, unless you’re the hysterical-laugh lady from Thursday night. Venables has only been on the road with this show for three years but he’s showing every minute of it in a performance that eventually warms up from tired but never quite seems fresh. He’s pretty funny, with good comedic timing and a fun Texas drawl that he brings out for his mimicry (“John, how can you get to be this old and not know how to clean a bathroom?!”). And he deals exceptionally well with a rowdy crowd, flowing in and out of improv without missing a beat.
No, the problem is more that Venables has thought about the philosophy too much, and in fact brings more profound empathy into this show that was originally written. We’re meant to laugh at the jokes and elbow our spouse/partner/whatever, not achieve Buddhist enlightenment. The script just doesn’t stand up to it, especially in a few non-updated cultural references.
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The other, deeper, problem with “Caveman” is how it ignores the fact that genders don’t always fit into boxes. Even leaving aside anyone who might be a little troubled by Venable’s campy mockery of guys that like big strong guys, not all women love shopping and not all men like power drills. Life just isn’t that simple. But if you think it is, then you’ll enjoy “Caveman” and its 90 minutes of laughs – and if this play makes us think harder about basic differences between human beings (men, women or whatever) then yes, that’s a good thing.