Media Circus: Mars Attacks!

John Gray (Ph.D.) comes to Broadway: How a planned cruise to Venus and Mars ended up more like a disastrous episode of "The Love Boat."

Published January 28, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

there are "four magic words" that a "Venusian" (also known as a "woman") can use to calm a fretful, wigged-out "Martian" ("man"), John Gray observes in "Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus." Those four words are, in order: "It's not your fault."

Gray must have been silently repeating that Stuart Smalleyish mantra to himself last night, when the debut performance of his stand-up therapy show, "John Gray on Broadway: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," came crashing down in flames during its second half. The evening itself isn't much more than a slightly tarted-up version of the earnest monologues Gray delivers at his popular relationship seminars. But for a post-intermission bonus, Gray took a page from "Politically Incorrect" and invited several quasi-celebrity guests onto the stage at the Gershwin Theatre. Among them: the Victoria's Secret model Frederique, a rapper named Q-tip, the New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams and her aging husband, the former Borscht-belt comedian Joey Adams.

The ostensible subject: Can't Martians and Venusians just get along? The apparent answer: Nope. Before long, Frederique was sticking hatpins into Gray's over-inflated theories, Q-tip was mumbling incoherently, and the octogenarian Joey Adams kept lumbering to his feet to tell rambling and wildly off-topic "Polack" jokes. ("Mars attacks!" whispered my amused date.) "We've got to pick this up, we're dying here," Gray said, smiling between clenched teeth, before Cindy Adams finally stood up, pried the microphone from her befuddled husband's hands, and forced him off the stage. "Let him stay!" shouted those audience members who preferred bad jokes to lame psychobabble. But it was too late. The Adams family was gone, and Gray, who soldiered on, looked wilted. Not too long afterward, "John Gray on Broadway" ground to a halt.

The evening was a rare commercial misstep for the man who has taken a terrifically simple concept -- men and women are different -- and transformed it into a multimedia empire. Gray has quickly become a self-help supernova. "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," published in 1992, is the bestselling book of the last decade, having sold more than 10 million copies and spent nearly four years on the bestseller list. What's more, Gray has five other books -- and a sixth, "Mars and Venus on a Date," is due this spring. He's also got 12 videotapes, two Web sites and several CD-Roms. He offers 30 weekend seminars annually, and runs more than 20 counseling centers. A film and television show based on his work are expected soon. The backs of his books feature advertisements for luxury "Cruises to Venus and Mars." Hotel chains and theme parks can't be too far around the bend.

The remarkable thing about "The Universe of John Gray" -- as Gray himself calls it -- is how much like an intellectual theme park it already is. His books and lectures don't contain ideas, exactly. Instead they take platitudes and dress them up in cute, huggy-poo costumes. Once Gray feels like we have a handle on the Mars-Venus concept, for example, he focuses his Hubble telescope on more nebulous theories: Men are like rubber bands. Women are like waves. Men are like the sun. Women are like the moon. Men retreat to their "caves" when upset. Women descend into their "wells." Sex is like baseball. This world of euphemism and avoidance makes you feel like you're listening to some Kenny G. of the soul.

This isn't to say that Gray's books always go down as smoothly as "smooth jazz." "Men Are from Mars" contains more than a few Ralph Kramden-like asides, in which Gray advises women to give their men plenty of stomping room or bang, zoom, they're going to the moon. "When a man is in a negative state," he suggests, "treat him like a passing tornado and lie low." And: "Never go into a man's cave or you will be burned by the dragon."

There are plenty of similarly painful moments in a sequel about sex and its discontents titled "Mars and Venus in the Bedroom." In this later book, when Gray isn't describing a woman's vagina as "her most sacred feminine chamber" or preaching something called "dick discipline" for men with roaming eyes, he's tossing out one banal phrase after another: "It is not enough for a man to have his way with a woman. She wants more." I'm especially fond of his Beavis and Butt-head-like suggestion to help hapless males learn to unhook women's bra straps: He thinks guys should sneak into their partner's closets and spend a few hours learning to undo all the different varieties. (Presumably, practice on a live model is a no-no.)

Onstage at the Gershwin, where this strange show will be running through next week, Gray kept well clear of such topics as "dick discipline." Wearing a dark suit and pacing across a fern-strewn stage that closely resembled a talk-show set, the 45-year-old former monk exuded a mixture of Michael J. Fox earnestness and Ross Perot didacticism. The nearly sold-out audience, many of whom were heavily moussed and clearly the recent recipients of plastic surgery, seemed rapt.

Gray began the lecture portion of his show by explaining how difficult it can be for men to listen to women. "Imagine the stage is a big brain," he said, noting that while women can use many parts of that brain at once, men can access only one area at a time. (In other words, if your favorite Martian is thinking, he can't be listening, too.) Gray suggested that men should indeed try to pay attention to their Venusians, though, because "you should choose to suffer now (by listening), because if you don't you're surely going to suffer later."

Sadly, Gray's form of "listening" sounds awfully patronizing. "Women don't want a logical conversation," he said. "They want a feeling conversation." He suggested that men stop trying to solve women's problems -- and "stop trying to use complete sentences" -- but merely make sympathetic noises instead. It was at about this point that one woman stormed out of a side door saying, audibly, "I'm from Pluto, and I don't care."

Another thing Martians can do for their Venusians, Gray said, is to pay attention to Venus' national holidays -- notably Valentine's Day, but also birthdays and anniversaries. "If you don't do these holidays well, what you do the rest of the year won't count," he said.

A gooey kind of chivalry scores points in Gray's Universe, too. As women enter the work force in greater numbers, he explained, "They're becoming more masculine in some ways, and they need more romance to make them feel feminine." So if your Venusian complains when you hold a door open for her, Gray said, the proper response is: You do so much for so many all day. Let me do this for you. "She'll melt," he said.

The second half of Gray's "act" went so wildly off the rails that you wonder how (or even if) he'll manage to survive the two-week stage run. But a glance around Broadway these days shows just how well Gray fits in among the Andrew Lloyd-Weber spectacles and the ongoing Disnification of Times Square. I suspect that, once he can find some tranquilized celebrities who won't knock his round-table segment off track, he may just settle in for a long run.

As the curtain came down on "John Gray on Broadway," I was reminded of a chapter in "Men Are from Mars" that grapples with the reasons men and women fight. "Men argue for the right to be free while women argue for the right to be upset," Gray writes. Which might explain why, after last night's show, I wanted to flee directly home and plunge my head into a bottle of red wine, while my date wanted to hang around and talk about exactly why the whole thing had been so terrible.

As politely as possible, I told her to get out of my cave, lest she be burned by the dragon.

EXTRA! Black criminals

This week's prize for Most Ineptly Worded Rhetorical Question Which Nevertheless Will Be Answered Really Really Soon goes to Newsweek's Donna Foote and Larry Reibstein, who in a final wrap-up of the O.J. civil case in the magazine's Feb. 3 issue, ask, "Would this mostly white jury view the evidence differently from the mostly black criminal jury?"

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------