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book review

Effervescent spoof of children’s theater floats up ideas about art and aging

Francine ProseStephanie Berger

Who among us — parents, grandparents, godparents, doting aunts and uncles — haven’t tried to recreate for our kids our enthralling first theatrical experience, that moment we sat rapt and barely moving in front of the stage? “Real actors,” my own son marveled at his first live performance. Often enough, however, the treat of a children’s matinee turns out to be no treat as we teeter on flimsy folding chairs, the floor sticky with spilled soda, the children restless, kicking the seats in front of them. We should have known — the tickets were too cheap, the theater too run-down, the costumes too tattered.

It’s a scenario Francine Prose knows all too well. In this latest of her more than 20 works of fiction, she has created a comic novel vastly more entertaining than the sad production of the children’s musical, “Mister Monkey,’’ she so hilariously pillories. The idea, Prose explained, sparked when she took her granddaughter to a children’s production in which everything was somewhat off. Though the actors were professional, they were clearly floundering. Halfway through, her granddaughter turned to her and asked whether she found the play interesting. Lucky for the reader, she found it interesting, indeed.

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Juggling multiple points of view, she presents an indelible cast of characters: the actors, the director, a child and his grandfather in the audience, the child’s teacher, the playwright, the playwright’s favorite waiter, the costume designer. Some are reliable narrators, some self-deluding, but all intersect in surprising and remarkable ways. As each tale unfolds, Prose offers insights on New York, evolution, Chekhov, childhood, adolescence, old age, stage mothers, trophy wives, loneliness, disappointment, and love.

The plot of the musical, summarized in a prelude, is based on a silly children’s novel that has become a classic, deservedly or not. Though the author, Ray Ortiz, had intended his book for adults, his writing teacher in the class for Vietnam Vets at Bronx Community College, suggested he simplify it for the more lucrative youth market. Craving fame and a table at a hot restaurant, Ray sells out. He changes Mister Monkey’s adoptive family from poor Puerto Ricans to rich white New Yorkers and describes Mr. Monkey on the first page as “super cute.” Now suffering from be-careful-what-you-wish-for guilt, Ray hates the musical adaptation of his book.

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It’s hard not to agree with Ray’s appraisal. At the Saturday matinee’s off-off-off-off Broadway production in a shabby theater slotted for demolition under the High Line, Margot, a once promising Yale-trained actress, has aged out of “Uncle Vanya’s’’ Sonya only to be stuck with the role of Portia, the lawyer hired to get the wrongly accused Mister Monkey out of jail. She’s forced into “a rainbow Harpo Marx wig and an obscenely short, hobblingly tight, iridescent purple suit,” even though her own Armani outfit would have been more appropriate to the character. Despite a justifiable sense of doom, the thespians and crew struggle to carry on with the show — Eric, the dumb heartthrob; Adam, the hormones-raging, home-schooled adolescent who plays the monkey in a costume made from a brown chenille bedspread; Lakshmi, the costume designer and daughter of two dads — one Hindu, one Muslim — who passes out stapled programs and fills in as a policeman; and the director, Roger, “no stranger to failure,” who needs “to pretend (at least to himself) that there is some higher purpose to this communal sabotage of a moronic text and a tuneless score.” Only Eleanor, as the evil stepmother, enjoys the safety net of a day job. Because she works as a nurse, “[a]cting’s a hobby for her, not a vocation, not a heartbreak and a torment.”

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True torment occurs when, at a pause during the performance, the child, Edward, pipes up from the second row, like Prose’s granddaughter, “Grandpa, are you interested in this?” Such a from-the-mouth-of-babes question causes things to go even more horribly wrong — molestation, a flung cellphone, missed cues — with both farcical and poignant repercussions. As Prose’s overwhelmed characters take turns documenting their hopes and shattered dreams, their scattered voices join in a shared effort that adds power and meaning to the plummeting production. In this strong, humane, and funny novel, Prose has treated us to an enthralling entertainment both on and off stage.

MISTER MONKEY

By Francine Prose

Harper, 285 pp., $26.99


Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at mameve@mamevemedwed.com.