Mis­ter Monkey

  • Review
By – January 4, 2017

Mis­ter Mon­key,” a tacky musi­cal ver­sion of a well-loved children’s book, has just hit a moment of sus­pense when a child in the audi­ence asks his grand­fa­ther, Grand­pa, are you inter­est­ed in this?” and the action on stage abrupt­ly freezes. The ques­tion — heard clear­ly through­out the small, dingy the­ater — sets up the theme of this play­ful yet mov­ing nov­el by Francine Prose, the author of more than twen­ty works of fic­tion. Like the children’s game Tele­phone, the nov­el pass­es a con­nec­tion to the play from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter, each one cast­ing the play in a dif­fer­ent role that illu­mi­nates his or her interests.

This shab­by shoe­string pro­duc­tion of Mis­ter Mon­key” brings togeth­er a group of actors, along with their resent­ments, dis­ap­point­ments, ambi­tions, and long­ings. Prose’s nov­el fans out wild­ly into the lives, among oth­ers, of the Viet­nam vet­er­an who wrote the book, a kinder­garten teacher, and a wait­er in a pre­ten­tious Ital­ian restau­rant. Each episode is an inge­nious­ly craft­ed piece that leads inex­orably to the novel’s res­o­lu­tion — an inter­net date almost as mem­o­rable as the deli scene in the film When Har­ry Met Sal­ly: an awk­ward talk between a pre­co­cious, hor­mone-dri­ven pre­teen and an old­er woman with the res­ig­na­tion, tinged with hope, of a mid­dle-aged actress who has nev­er quite made it. Prose takes a swipe at the upper-mid­dle-class pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with just the right kinder­garten,” with its prop­er poli­cies on nuts, and at the flat­ter­ing ser­vice for the reg­u­lars at a restau­rant that prides itself on its val­ued — read mob” — cus­tomers. Under­tones of Chekhov, a bit of Tol­stoy, and a ref­er­ence or two to Shake­speare rip­ple through the nov­el like the aspi­ra­tions and fad­ing hopes of the characters.

Strik­ing and orig­i­nal in its con­struc­tion and thor­ough­ly enter­tain­ing, Mis­ter Mon­key is pitch-per­fect in its obser­va­tions of a vari­ety of New York scenes, but it also equal­ly true to the crush­ing emo­tions of kinder­garten and pread­o­les­cence and the grow­ing fears of mid­dle age and old age. Above the human char­ac­ters sits Mis­ter Mon­key him­self, an all-see­ing chim­panzee-god who opens and clos­es the book. A sur­prise and a delight that leaves read­ers with deep appre­ci­a­tion for the cre­ativ­i­ty and dar­ing of the author.

Relat­ed Reads:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions