Defending the Caveman

You can see Neanderthal behavior any Las Vegas afternoon if you hover around the buffet, sports book or the blackjack table when there’s a bad beat.

But insights about your spouse based on anthropology? That’s a first for the LEGO castle spires of the Excalibur, but no weirder than the whole success story of "Defending the Caveman."

Las Vegas was late to the party in May 2007, when Rob Becker’s hit comic play introduced the little-seen genre of long-form monologue to the local mix. It’s basically stand-up comedy with a connective thread and a theme, in this case the idea of tracing miscommunication between the sexes back to the earliest hunter-gatherer societies.

It sounds highbrow, but the writing brings these concepts down to a debate over who refills the chip bowl. And it doesn’t forget a few cheap laughs. Greater understanding between spouses and all that is fine, but you came to have fun.

Becker performed the play 674 times on Broadway in the ’90s, before licensing it out for productions around the world. In Las Vegas, it’s in the hands of Kevin Burke, who now pulls double-duty after branching out to do his own comedy magic at Fitzgeralds just before "Caveman" closed at the Golden Nugget in December.

"I’m coming at you in 3-D," Burke had to remind this afternoon crowd in the new venue, telling them it’s OK to react and talk back a little, even with the stage scenery and theatrical music and lighting cues.

But people relax and lock in quickly. Burke is a perfect "Caveman" vessel, with a demeanor that resembles John Goodman, just as the material over generalizes in the way of bygone sit-coms such as "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement."

Burke explains men and women are "two different cultures, with different languages and history." Men kill channels with the TV remote; women pause to absorb information from each stop.

When one couple goes to another’s house, the women gather to collect the gossip while the men head out back to test a new drill on something.

As the title suggests, the narrative focuses on rescuing the male image from the beat-down it has taken since the 1980s. When the narrator goes to a party and hears the comment "Men are assholes" pass without so much as a comment, he rewinds to discover how we got to that place.

But the perspective shifts to give each gender its due. At one point, Burke moves to the other corner so quickly, he jokes that he can hear the women saying, "He was funny a minute ago."

Burke says he still is playing with the running time for these Excalibur shows, which have evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays but otherwise fall during the day. He may add a few minutes back in, but this one clocked in at an hour on the nose, not counting an introductory video or Burke’s wind-down comments.

It’s a flexible vehicle that still makes all its points in compact form, but the ending seemed to come more abruptly and lacked a bit of the punch I remembered from the Nugget. Maybe that was because it was the second time around. But this is a title that thrives on repeat business and word of mouth, suggesting there’s much to absorb.

As Burke notes at the end, he can’t help but feeling a little bit proud of himself. Not just because he’s performing a thoughtful show in the afternoon, but because "I’m selling monogamy in Sin City."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.

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