Theatre in Review: Ingenious Nature (Soho Playhouse)
Baba Brinkman isn't your average confessional monologist. For one thing, his medium of choice is rap, despite his provenance as a white native of Vancouver, Canada. (His mother's assertion that he is "the greatest rapper alive" notwithstanding, he is notably lacking in ghetto style; for example, he has a pronounced Canadian diphthong -- saying "aboot" when he means "about.") For another, he is the theatre's answer to Bill Nye, the Science Guy, steeped as he is in the finer details of evolution and genetics. (He has already presented a show titled The Rap Guide to Evolution.) And, even if you think you've seen everything, I'm betting you have yet to witness a performer, on stage while the audience filters in, communicating with potential hookups on the dating website OKCupid. (The results are projected on a screen for all to see; at the performance I attended, he wrote one young lady, "You wouldn't believe where I'm messaging you from.")
Ingenious Nature is about a lot of things, including gangsta style, the SRY gene, and the mating habits of various species. (Did you know that the prairie vole is monogamous but the meadow vole is a veritable Hugh Hefner?) There's even a passage about the importance of ovulation in helping males and females to get together; an audience poll is taken to see how many women present are in the middle of their periods. But really -- as Brinkman notes, one of the attractions of performing is that it is "a semi-reliable way to get laid" -- Ingenious Nature is about the dating travails of its star, especially as practiced on the Internet. Hint: No matter how interested you are in the natural world, it's probably not a good idea to advertise yourself as looking for "a praying mantis open to some mandible animal foreplay." In a later gambit, he tries to establish his sensitive-guy bona fides, claiming that he is macrobiotic, his favorite band is Feist, and "Burning Man changed my life."
This not-entirely-honest self-description leads to dates with a perky Christian gal -- they fall out over evolution -- and Spiritualist Sheryl, a devotee of Deepak Chopra. Things don't go much better with her, especially when he counters her explanation of the seven chakras with a lecture on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. Then there's the radical feminist who once slept with her brother -- an alliance that ends messily when history repeats itself. Eventually, Brinkman finds his true love, more or less, with a scientist, causing him to worry that his life of constant touring will undermine his promises of fidelity. This leads to another audience poll, via text message, on the question of staying together or breaking up. (Of course, with this sort of entertainment you never know, but I certainly hope this part of the show is fiction; if not, I think I can safely say that Brinkman soon won't be needing advice about this particular relationship.)
Think of Ingenious Nature as a very special episode of The Bachelor -- a downtown edition, for PhD candidates; an obviously brainy affair, it is less amusing that it presumes to be. This is partly because rap, by its very nature, consists of torrents of words that don't allow for much emotional variety. Also, the constant procession of false rhyme is like Brillo on the ear. The entertainment is also marked by a certain evasiveness; Brinkman brings up certain troubling details -- such the dismaying news that he carries a gene that drastically increases his chances of developing late-onset Alzheimer's -- then drops them, apparently feeling that they are too disruptive for this kind of light entertainment.
Offsetting these problems is Brinkman himself, whose sunny, friendly manner proves remarkably disarming; he is certainly the most likable fellow who ever tried to pick up girls from an Off Broadway stage. He also partners well with the DJ, Jamie Simmonds -- his best friend, roommate, and partner in romantic crime -- who dazzles with some especially adept feats of turntablism. The sound mix, by the designer, Dialekt, is too loud whenever Brinkman is talking, which is most of the time, but is just right whenever Simmonds is sampling and scratching. Erik Pearson's large-scale projections -- which include images of germs, Maslow's hierarchy, and various Internet postings -- threaten to steal focus at times, as does Jason Boyd's colorful lighting, which, using two sets of moving-head LED units, blends ballyhoos and blinder effects in a sometimes eye-searing way.
If Brinkman comes off as a guy in search of the right format for his talents, it is also true that Ingenious Nature, one of the more interactive shows to be found Off Broadway, is likely to be enjoyed by groups of young, date-minded guys with a couple of drinks under their belts. (At the performance I attended, the audience, many of them waving beer bottles, were in need of serious wrangling; they hooted at the mildest remark and chattered incessantly throughout.) In some ways, Brinkman is more of a host than a star; in addition to chatting with the audience and conducting polls, after the show he and Simmonds handed out CDs in the lobby -- for free, with a modest suggested donation -- before inviting everyone to join him in the Soho Playhouse's basement bar. I departed, so if he made any love connections, I cannot say.--David Barbour