The L.A. stage hit "Streep Tease: An Evening of Meryl Streep Monologues Performed by an All-Male Cast" is as notable for what it is as for what it is not.
"It's not a drag show," creator-producer-performer Roy Cruz said recently at the Fairfax District's Bang Comedy Theatre, where the 65-minute sensation is closing in on a yearlong run.
"It's not an offensive show, it's not a showcase, and it's not in any way disrespectful or a parody," added director Ezra Weisz.
"What it is," said David Dean Bottrell, one of the show's eight cast members, "is a comic valentine to a great artist."
Dispelling any misconceptions has been key to properly promoting the production. Case in point: When Bottrell, who embodies Streep's Karen Blixen — Danish accent and all — for a show-stopping six-minute summation of "Out of Africa," told a fellow churchgoer about his part in the show, she immediately asked, "Do you wear her clothes?"
Cruz, a Filipino-born comedian and actor, hatched the idea for "Streep Tease" after re-creating Streep's icy "Devil Wears Prada" fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly as part of his stand-up routine. "When I ran out of material, the 'Prada' monologue was always reliable," he said. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to turn those into an entire show?' "
Last summer, Cruz did just that, enlisting actors and other performers to pick a favorite Streep movie monologue to reenact for one night only. "I approached it like an open mike night," said Cruz, "no director at that time, just come in and do your thing."
"There was so little rehearsal, it was a little like being shot out of a cannon," recalled Bottrell, an accomplished screenwriter ("Kingdom Come") and actor ("Boston Legal"), of September's opening night. "I thought, 'This can either be fantastic or horribly embarrassing.'"
Fortunately, the sold-out performance struck a chord and Cruz and company kept returning weekend after weekend to get their collective Streep on and entertain what was mainly a crowd of adoring friends — and their friends. When "Streep Tease" began "growing legs," Cruz approached Bang Improv Conservatory director Ezra Weisz to helm the show and help turn it into something a bit more cohesive than just eight back-to-back monologues.
"I told Roy, 'You have an idea that's just way too good, and it would be a shame for this idea not to continue to grow an audience because it's missing a throughline or a vision or a spine,'" said Weisz. "The show was all there. It was just a matter of putting the different pieces together, making it somewhat more thematic and honoring Meryl a little bit more.... I wanted it to be more of an ensemble piece where everybody is connected."
In addition to engaging the actors more in each others' scenes, Weisz created an opening tableaux of the performers spouting "Merylisms," added Meryl Streep trivia questions ("Name her major at Vassar!"), inserted corresponding Streep movie soundtrack music and tacked on a "Mamma Mia!"-esque closing number. But as Weisz admitted, his contributions were met with a fair amount of resistance, since cast members rightfully felt "a great deal of ownership" to the pieces they had originated.
According to Ron Morehouse, who brings the nasty Madeline Ashton from "Death Becomes Her" to life: "As it's gone along, we've all embraced these parts of the show that have made it so much better. We just want to continue to see it grow, to make it more of an evening, more of an experience. It really is an event now."
Although each actor brought his own distinctive approach to feting Streep, all the performers were unified by a desire to play their roles convincingly. That is, as convincingly as men can perform speeches written for a woman.
"There is no such thing as a Meryl Streep impersonation," maintained Bottrell. "The pieces that we do are a reinterpretation of a particular performance that she gave in some iconic film."
Cruz made a key point: "If you look at [more frequently imitated actresses] Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, their mannerisms are consistent from one film to the other. With Meryl, from film to film, the mannerisms change."
"Those performances [Crawford's and Davis'] are like camp," added Morehouse. "We play these pieces very real."
Still, how do these guys get in touch with their characters' female side?
"I just play it as it would pertain to me as a man in the scene, not as a woman," said Morehouse, "in the same way I would go about performing any role I was looking at from my perspective."
Trent Walker, who spliced together various moments from "Silkwood" to portray Streep's title character, said: "I didn't use many female mannerisms until Ezra came on and said, 'Try this, try that.' I just went back, did my work as an actor for that monologue, then watched the movie and added some of the mannerisms that I thought the audience would remember."
The majority of the show's monologues, which also include memorable moments from "A Cry in the Dark," "The Bridges of Madison County," "The River Wild" and, on occasion, "Postcards From the Edge," employ a comedic tone. But what is perhaps Streep's greatest role, her Oscar-winning Sophie Zawistowski from "Sophie's Choice," is revisited with utter seriousness by veteran comic actor Taylor Negron ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "The Aristocrats").
Despite the solemn nature of the movingly performed scene, the "Streep Tease" group doesn't believe it in any way brings down the otherwise buoyant evening. Weisz considers it "an amazing component to the show. It adds a bottom, a groundedness. It's the yin and yang to making it complete."
As for La Streep herself, she has not yet seen the production, which has attracted fans from as far away as Italy and Australia. But, between personal e-mail invites by guerrilla marketer Cruz to both the actress (no response) and to her agent, CAA's Kevin Huvane (who has twice reserved tickets but to the best of Cruz's knowledge has never shown), Streep is likely at least "aware" of the clever tribute.
Whether the acting legend is ever physically in the house or not, though, her presence is felt at every performance. "One of the components to the success of this show is this incredible global love for Meryl Streep," Bottrell said. "I feel like that's part of what fills this theater. This show makes people so happy. I'm floored by the reaction to it."