Prymate Quietly Closes on Broadway

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10 May 2004

Andre De Shields and Heather Tom in <i>Prymate</i>
Andre De Shields and Heather Tom in Prymate

Prymate, the ambitious Mark Medoff play that critics dismissed after its May 5 opening, had its final performance May 8, it was announced May 10.

The announcement of the closing came the same morning the 2004 Tony Award nominations were announced. Prymate didn't earn any nominations; it's unclear if the play would have re-emerged had it been nominated. No Sunday May 9 show had been scheduled.

The play closed after 23 previews and five performances, and some grim box office statistics: The week of April 19, for example, the play only grossed $23,664, representing about 8 percent of the Longacre Theatre's capacity.

Producer Chase Mishkin bought a newspaper ad — fashioned as an open letter to theatregoers — encouraging them to take a risk and see the show, about scientists battling over the life of gorilla (played by Andre De Shields).

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The Tony-winning author of Children of a Lesser God returned to Broadway for the first time since that play debuted. The show began previews at the Longacre Theatre April 16.

The four-person cast included Phyllis Frelich, who won a Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God; Andre De Shields, most recently seen on Broadway in The Full Monty; two-time Tony-winner James Naughton; and Heather Tom.

The play was a late entry in the 2003-04 Broadway season. It was rushed to New York after a recent premiere at Florida State University at Tallahassee. As at FSU, Ed Sherin directed. Since previews began, the production attracted comment for De Shields' provocative (and sexual) performance as a gorilla.

Michael Parva and Chase Mishkin produced.

The work followed the story of two scientists battling for control over the life of an aging gorilla. Should the animal should be allowed to grow old peacefully or be tested in hopes of finding a cure for a deadly disease? The ape communicated through American Sign Language.

The show's profile was heightened considerably by a feature article written by Bruce Weber that appeared in the New York Times. The production's center of attention (arguably) is De Shields' wordless performance. The African-American actor plays the gorilla, and Florida audiences were reportedly stirred and sometimes stunned by the portrayal. The actor told Playbill On-Line he hoped the role would get audiences talking and dispel lingering social stereotypes.

De Shields said his involvement was initiated by director Sherin. The two men met some years ago and established a rapport. When the script for Prymate passed Sherin's desk, he thought of De Shields. "Ed called me up and said, 'I bet you don't have a gorilla on your resume.' I didn't."

De Shields stopped the show each night in The Full Monty with his roof-raising song, "Big Black Man." He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work. More recently, he starred in the new revival of poet Derek Walcott's 1967 play Dream on Monkey Mountain at Off-Broadway Classical Theatre of Harlem—a rare non musical role for the actor. His previous nomination was for 1997's Play On! Other Broadway credits include The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' and 1984's André De Shields' Haarlem Nocturne, a revue which he conceived, wrote (with co-authors Murray Horwitz and musical director Marc Shaiman), directed, composed, choreographed and performed. He also appeared at the Goodman in Waiting for Godot.

Naughton won his Tonys for City of Angels and Chicago. He recently returned to the latter for a short stint as lawyer Billy Flynn. His other credits include Y2K and Four Baboons Adoring the Sun. As a director, he has piloted Broadway revivals of Our Town and The Price.