Mister Monkey is a terrible musical based on an inexplicably beloved children’s book. And the production at the center of this novel by Francine Prose is particularly bad. But the cast and crew try:
They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundredth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable music based on the classic children’s novel.
Prose’s novel reads like a collection of linked stories, with each chapter following a different person, sometimes an actor in the play, sometimes a member of the audience, sometimes just someone connected to one of the people connected to the play. The thread winds through the city, returning again and again to the play.
I liked this structure. I could never tell just where it would go next, and it brought home the idea that every single person has a story invisible to everyone else. The man whose grandson spoke up loudly during a moment of quiet during the show is dealing with old age and the feeling of being left out as life rolls on. The grandson is fretting over the change in status that comes with a new school. (The grandson is said to be precocious, but he seemed excessively so to me.) His teacher is worrying over her inability to control her classroom in the way her principal and parents desire, especially when it means giving up teachable moments and ignoring student questions. And so on.
Not all of the chapters are as enjoyable as the others, but the nice thing is that if a particular character’s story bored me, another came along quickly. And often a new story would allow me to see a previous one in a new light. The book is at its weakest when the characters get philosophical and spiritual. There’s a whole section about the Monkey God that seemed over-the-top to me, but that could be my lack of familiarity with Hinduism. Then again, knowledge of Hinduism could have made it worse. The book is at its best when it uncovers characters—their hidden motivations and dreams behind the actions that don’t necessarily make sense.
This is, I believe, one of two monkey-oriented books in the Tournament of Books this year. I preferred the other one, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, but this one has its charms. It will come up against one of the three sports-related books from the play-in round. I started, but gave up on two of those three books. (Sudden Death was too all over the place to hold my interest at the time and The Throwback Special bored me.) So, at this point, I’m rooting for this one to win its round. And if Charlie Freeman defeats the The Nix (which I also haven’t read), the two monkey books will go head-to-head in round 2.