|From left, Francis Gercke, Andrew Joseph Perez and Nanci Zoppi perform
“The Behavior of Broadus,” playing through Jan. 3 at Capital Stage. Charr Crail./Courtesy photo
If I told you that I saw a show that was a bio-musical about John Broadus Watson, the father of behaviorism and modern advertising, which includes dancing barnyard animals, a talking lab rat, romance and a lots of simulated sex, would it intrigue you? A musical about behavioral science? How can that possibly be entertaining?
Well, the enjoyment of this show, directed by Albert Dayan (one of the playwrights), is due in large part to the marvelous, creative choreography of Ken Roht and the musical direction of Graham Sobelman. Ordinary lyrics are lifted into the stratosphere by the crisp, clean dancing of the 11-member cast.
The press release tells us that this is the “sort of true story” of Watson (Francis Gercke), who started life as a preacher wannabe in South Carolina, converting all the barnyard animals (in wonderful masks by Ann Closs-Farley), but finding that when he went to Chicago he was less successful with people, so he enters the University of Chicago to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and find out how he can better make people accept his message.
Gercke’s performance wonderfully spans his innocent childhood, his religious God complex, his rigid academic years and all the way to the regrets of his old age.
Along the way, he discovers behavioral conditioning when he first teaches Phil the Rat (a very funny Andrew Joseph Perez) to run a maze. He then trains “Baby Albert,” a 9-month-old child (Connor Mickiewicz) first to have no fear of anything, and then to fear the things he previously loved, a fear that will last his entire life.
At the start of a torrid affair with a lab assistant Rosalie (Nanci Zoppi), Watson writes, “Enclosed you will find a graph comparing my feelings for you to those of my wife. As you can see you are now nearly three standard deviations in the lead. Best regards, Watson.”
Not a romantic fellow, this Watson!
Zoppi is very funny, particularly in dealing with her “plasma seepage” and its cure.
Following this scandal, Watson resigns from the faculty and sets up his own private laboratory with Rosalie (whom he eventually marries) to continue his experiments, the results of which he then applied to the world of advertising, and changed forever how advertising was presented to the world. He continues his behavioral manipulation experiments — on his own children — with disastrous results.
An outstanding performance in this production is given by Don Hayden, credited with being Watson’s lab assistant Loeb, but he is at his best as the university head trustee in the hearing to determine Watson’s future because of his “abominable transgressions of adultery and lust.”
The set for this show, by Stephen C. Jones, is very simple, with moving tables and chalkboards. But the projections on the back wall, which cover Watson’s life from actual documents, are by Steve Decker, based on original images by Jason Thompson. They set the mood nicely, as does Decker’s lighting design throughout, but particularly with the deaths of several characters.
Act 1 of this play is fast-paced and consistently funny, while Act 2 is less so, and goes on perhaps too long. But overall, the show is still very funny and worth seeing, if only for the experience.