Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: "Mister Monkey" by Francine Prose

I remember a number of times attending a local professional theater production that wasn't particularly good, and I wondered about those involved. Did the actors know it was bad, and if so, were they soldiering on for the sake of the audience, or were they so far gone in their own careers that this was the best they could do? It was an interesting, but somewhat sad thought.

"But the actors and presumably the director never expected that they would wind up doing that play—in that theater. Whatever they'd hoped to achieve in their careers certainly wasn't that."

Francine Prose's new novel reminded me a bit of those productions. The story of a very-far-off-Broadway production of a children's musical called "Mister Monkey," the book is both satire and commentary on many different aspects of our society. It's surprisingly sensitive and astute in some places, amusing in others, and doesn't quite work as a whole.

"Mister Monkey" is a musical that has had many runs all over the world over the years, but probably should have been taken off the boards a while ago. The story of an orphaned chimpanzee who is adopted by a widower and his children, only to be surprised when the cheekily larcenous monkey is accused of stealing the wallet belonging to his father's girlfriend, the musical is a favorite of some and reviled by others, yet it lives on. (Even the author of the book on which the musical is based hates the stage adaptation.)

The cast of the latest production is in a bit of an uproar. Adam, the young gymnast who plays the title character, is in the throes of puberty, and his alternately lascivious and obnoxious behavior has nearly all of his fellow actors on edge. Margot, a once-promising actress who views this production as a true sign of her downfall, not only finds herself being preyed on by Adam, but mistreated by the director, who outfits her in a garish costume that makes her feel foolish. Lakshmi, the earnest young costume supervisor, doesn't quite understand her purpose in the show, but views it as fodder for the play she wishes to write.

Each of these characters is the focus of their own chapter, as are everyone from the show's director and the author of the original book, to an elderly grandfather who is in the audience the first day the wheels start to come off of the production, his grandson, his grandson's kindergarten teacher, and a waiter at a fancy restaurant who is given tickets to the show by the author. It's an interesting approach, one which seems to be used more frequently in books, and here it has mixed results.

I'll admit, I expected this book to focus on the show and those involved, and those chapters were the ones I enjoyed the most. I get what Prose was trying to do with the other chapters, both demonstrate the show's effect on audience members, the author, etc., and provide commentary about our culture, how children are raised these days, and so on, but I just didn't feel this worked as well as it could have.

Prose is one hell of a writer, however, and she has created a very memorable set of characters, as well as imagery that you truly can see in your mind's eye. (I could almost picture certain musical numbers she described, in all their dysfunctional glory.) I just wish this book didn't try to do too much, because when it focused on the musical itself and those involved, it was, shall we say, a hit?

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