Local actor takes on the birds and bees

Posted: September 06, 2013

WHAT'S SO funny about sex education? A lot, if you're local-theater heavyweight Tony Braithwaite.

Described by one publication as possibly the funniest man in Philadelphia history, Braithwaite has been the celebrated star of such local comedy productions as the Arden Theatre's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and various editions of the satirical "This Is the Week That Is," staged by 1812 Productions.

He is also artistic director of Ambler's Act II Playhouse where, on Tuesday, he begins previews of his own, mostly one-man show, "Didn't Your Father Have This Talk With You?" which runs through Oct. 10.

"The idea is to tell stories and amusing anecdotes from my 12 years of teaching religion and sexual education at my alma mater, St. Joseph's Prep," Braithwaite explained during a recent phone call. "I talk about things like answers on tests where [students] misspell words and end up with, 'A baby is curled up in the fecal position.'

"We had the dean of students - a real tough dude - get up and give a [Thanksgiving] reflection. He had a son, Jimmy, and [the vice principal] said, 'Gentlemen, I am thankful for nothing more than the chance to play with my little Jimmy every day.'"

The show also gets personal, as Braithwaite recounts his own education regarding the birds and bees. "Growing up, we knew nothing," he admitted with a chuckle.

"I can remember sneaking into the City Line movie theater to see 'Police Academy,' which was rated 'R.' I'd never seen an R-rated film - I was in seventh grade or something, and there was no Internet, no cable TV, no computers, no nothing.

"And the scene in the ladies' locker room, where there were five naked women on the screen, my genuine reaction was that I was gonna be arrested, that this had to be illegal, what I was seeing.

"If we had heard somebody's brother had found a weather-beaten copy of Playboy in the woods, we'd have gone on a six-mile hike with the cast of 'Stand By Me' to find the damn thing!"

Braithwaite insisted that most of the script is drawn from real life. "Believe it or not," he said, "I would say the vast majority of it actually happened. But the names have been changed to protect the guilty."

When asked what qualified him to teach sex ed, he replied, "You haven't seen my film work."

Actually, he studied it in a religion class as a theology major at Georgetown University. And when St. Joseph's hired him - at age 22 - it was the same at The Prep.

"It was one course, religion and sex ed," he recalled. "We studied world religions in the fall. In the middle of the year, we would do the Old Testament, and in the spring we would do sex ed. So, people would ask me what I did for a living, and I'd say, 'I teach religion and sex ed,' and they'd just stare. So I'd say, 'Surf and turf.' "

While "Didn't Your Father...?" is technically a one-man show, a very special person makes his presence known throughout. "My father, who is 80 and funniest man I know, makes a lot of vocal cameos in the show," Braithwaite said. "We have recordings of him interrupting - 'Whoa, whoa, whoa! What're you doing there?' 'No, no, no, that's not how it happened!'

"We talk about the differences of music then versus music now. Dad would have listened to things like, [he sings] 'Birds do it, bees do it' [by Cole Porter] and that was considered racy. And we had things like 'Come out Virginia, don't let me wait' [Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young"] - oh, that was racy.

"Then I play a clip from the Three 6 Mafia, who kids are listening to today: 'A-- and t--s! 'A-- and t--s!' It's a little more graphic today."

So, does he represent himself as an old geezer lamenting the morals and mores of today's youth?

"That's probably why I put Dad in the show," he reasoned, "to make me the middle man, so I don't come across as the old geezer."

Once this show ends, Braithwaite will have no time for a breather. On Oct. 16, he opens in the backstage farce "Lend Me a Tenor" at Delaware Theatre Company, in Wilmington. It runs through Nov. 3.

"The last week of ["Didn't Your Father . . . ?] is gonna be pretty brutal," he lamented. "We'll be doing this show at night and rehearsing that show during the day.

Sounds like a good premise for another show, no?

"It's either the premise of a show," he offered, "or the reason I have high blood pressure. I'm not sure."

Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, showtimes vary, $34, $27 and $23, 215-654-0200, act2.org.

" @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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