As we endure the endless storms and burdens of winter, one imagines actors and actresses would hasten to bundle up, but at least on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages, the opposite has been true. Seemingly more than ever, performers are doffing their duds and strutting their stuff for their art -- and their box office buzz.
Certainly the most celebrated case at the moment is The Blue Room, David Hare's two-character comedy, featuring its acclaimed London twosome, Iain Glen and Nicole Kidman. Glen gets naked in the second act, even doing a cartwheel in the buff, but it's Kidman's nudity that's received the most press. Though she bares all for less than half a minute (and the artful nudity shows just her back and side), London critics caused a media frenzy across the Atlantic. Certainly the phrase of the year was one UK scribe's description of Kidman's appearance as "pure theatrical Viagra." (To be fair, beyond the nudity, another scene has Kidman in an alluring body stocking, and the actress wears a series of revealing skirts and tops.)
Essentially sold-out for its limited run, The Blue Room had reportedly racked up $3 million in ticket sales even before it officially opened on Dec. 13. Sales are now reportedly closer to $4 million.
But if you're in New York, frustrated at being unable to secure Blue Room ducats, and still crave seeing naked flesh on the boards, there are half a dozen other shows that offer a glimpse or more of the human form.
Most prominent is The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Paul Rudnick's latest comedy, moving from New York Theatre Workshop to the Minetta Lane Theatre Jan. 29. The play takes its cue from right-wing, anti-gay activists who point out that the Bible starts with Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Or so we've been told... Since the opening scenes of Fabulous Story take place in Eden, Adam and Steve are, indeed, quite naked throughout, and there's fairly graphic, albeit humorous, sexual interplay between them. Later in the show, there's partial female nudity when another character goes into labor.
There's fleeting nudity from a male statue in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, though the swan costumes do display a number of duck tails.
Full frontal male and female nudity can be found in the darkly comic, Off- Broadway mounting of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe. Among the peelers were original cast members Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer (who first comes on stage wearing only a t-shirt), recently replaced by Paul Dillon and Jan Leslie Harding.
Though Fool Moon doesn't have any actual mooning, Cabaret does, with Alan Cumming's emcee ending the first act in a cheeky way.
Kathleen Chalfant takes off her hospital gown for the sad yet oddly heroic finale to Wit, Margaret Edson's hit drama, which just reopened at the Union Square Theatre Off-Broadway. Another poignant use of nudity comes in the Public Theatre's hit, Stop Kiss. In Diana Son's comedy/drama, a neurotic young woman finally comes to terms with her budding lesbianism when she has to partially undress her wheelchair bound friend (played by Sandra Oh), beaten in a homophobic attack. Oh also strips to her underwear earlier in the play.
There's also a moment of fleeting nudity in the Off-Broadway revue, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know. For the song "Naked In Pittsburgh," the singer is left literally holding the towel as he waits in vain for the airlines to locate the lost luggage containing all his clothes. Prurient viewers will be saddened to learn that the actor almost -- but not quite -- drops the towel at the end of the tune.
In the near-nudity department, Sandra Bernhard kept her clothes on in the recent I'm Still Here...Damn It!, though her two outfits are about as see through and form-fitting as her own skin. Aviva Jane Carlin spent nearly half the duration of her long-running, Off-Off-Broadway solo, Jodie's Body, in the buff. In fact, the theme and topic of that autobiographical show, which ran through Jan. 3, 1999, had to do with body image in society. The character was extremely overweight, yet works as an artists' model and is quite comfortable with her shape. A production spokesperson phrased the show's central question as: "Who decides what is the perfect body? Why can't we get away from these whole fashion-magazine notions?"
More than one writer has pointed out the irony that this influx of nudity comes at a time when New York's Mayor Giuliani has launched a LaGuardia like crusade against strip clubs and table-dance joints in Times Square. Correlations between the rise of one type of ecdysis and the fall of another are iffy, however, since the government crackdowns have been against places that display nude women, and a high percentage of theatrical skin-baring has been male.
So maybe on stage nudity doesn't raise as many eyebrows as it did in the days of Hair and Oh! Calcutta!. (How could it, when Off Broadway shows have titles like "Shopping and Fucking"?) And what with the bare butts in the recent Damn Yankees revival and canoodling hotel staffers in The Judas Kiss, actors in their altogether are becoming a New York staple. Still, the most curious thing of all is that for all the ire and controversy surrounding Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, which imagined Jesus as a forlorn, gay outcast in small-town 1950s Texas, the show had not a moment of undress.
Then again, considering the play's critical reception, perhaps the audience should have taken off its clothes. The aesthetics would have been questionable, but at least crowds would have moved more swiftly through the metal detectors.
-- By David Lefkowitz