The scenery for Men in Boats consists of floor to ceiling, grainy black and wide photos of massive rock formations, leaving little questions that this play is about the American West. Ah, the American West! That great place that has inspired countless dreaming and wanderlust and fostered the American spirit of adventure and exploration. I hadn’t read any background material on Men in Boats prior to arriving to the theater, and I sat back and waited to see where this American Western adventure would lead me.
On the surface, Men in Boats is a zany, goofball spoof about men in boats. Specifically a group of men commissioned by the U.S. government, led by John Wesley Powell, and headed down the Colorado River to chart the river’s path. However, in this re-telling, the men in boats were all played by women in boats. Which is probably the easiest way to spoof on a group of men, venturing down the Colorado River in the mid-1800s. Each man of the expedition inhabits a fairly common stereotype (the dumb brother who gets drunks and sings silly songs too long after each meal; the second-in-command who thinks he is better than the leader; the European dilettante; the sturdy cook who keeps the peace, etc.) and they bicker and complain much as one would expect a group of eleven men who are stuck together for months on end in an inhospitable environment. But hearing women bicker as the men did only highlighted the silliness and pettiness of the bickering. The actors are all great, and they do an even better job getting laughs at lines that would seem completely plausible if uttered by the original men in the expedition. (The humor was also helped by 21st century vernacular.) One wonders, just for a moment, how much American history would have been different had all our expeditions been led and manned by women. Would we have evolved to be a much funnier country?
The comedy eventually gives way to a more serious note. This is, after all the American West and exploration into new territory was not a walk in the park. As the English dilettant exlaims before leaving the group, “No one risks death in Provence!” The comic aspect continues, but the audience is brought up to speed on the dangers and fears that they faced as they continued the expedition.
There is automatic tension built into the story, the main question being whether the group will survive. There is a subplot between the expedition leader and the second in command. But the play appeals more as a series of episodes and vignettes that reveal character rather than a tight storyline. And even with minimal props (half boats), crisp lines, strong verbal imagery, and well-timed sound effects make the action fun and easy to follow.
In the end, the group makes it out alive. They are greeted by a local who explains to them that everyone had taken them for dead. He delivers the final monologue and the men are spellbound and reduced to listening to him recap their story. The local man has the last comic, philosophical word and in the end, the audience is left pondering who ever will have the last word. Or for that matter, the last laugh.