by Charlotte Stoudt
Can you build a satisfying story on ’80s jokes alone? USA’s “Psych” nearly does, but there’s a new contender in town: Stephen Belber’s “The Muscles in Our Toes,” a comic homosocial ballet now at the El Portal Forum Theatre.
The inaugural Los Angeles show for Green Beetle Productions, “Toes” makes the case that there is nothing funnier than frustrated white guys singing Lionel Richie.
High school, that eternal crucible of American identity formation, is the setting for a 20th reunion of old friends — with one noticeable absence. As the play opens, we see Les (Daniel Milder), now a fight coordinator for theater and film, making a supportive video for the family of classmate Jim (Keith Ewell), a sneaker magnate being held by rebels in Chad in retaliation for the U.S.’ detainment of a gay Canadian terror suspect.
Les is joined by fellow Class of ’88 alums Reg (Michael Benyaer) a government employee of Persian descent; Phil (Bill Tangradi), self-described as “atypically gay,” and finally Dante (Al Espinosa), still steamed all these years later from Reg’s illicit tryst with Dante’s then-girlfriend Carrie (Kristen Lee Kelly). Dante strides in full of piss and vinegar — and suddenly there seems to be an actual play in our midst. “You can quote from last night’s ‘Charlie Rose,’” he challenges, or you can do something real— “like bombing the FBI.” The four proceed to debate the best course of action to free Jim, which ultimately leads to the display of chest hair, violence choreographed and impromptu, and the mangling of Hebrew.
The cast has a ball with the material, with Espinosa particularly good as the over-amped Dante. Scenic designer Donna Marquet’s school music room, with its battered upright piano, cheap furniture and aura of institutional mediocrity, is so evocative you may experience traumatic flashbacks of your own. Still, even with Jennifer Chamber’s able direction, “Toes” — much like its protagonists — can’t quite find a way forward despite its outsized energy. A forgivable offense with material this funny. If you know the words to most of George Michael’s hit songs, or were a member of your high school drama club, you are likely to laugh until your face hurts.