I first heard about Rob Becker and his one-man show, "Defending the Caveman," nearly six years ago when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus publicist Bill Powell - a frequent visitor to Salt Lake City - was raving about it.

At that time the show had been playing at the Improv comedy club in San Francisco - its first public performances shortly after Becker had written and developed it."The club was about to close and they were desperate," Becker said during a recent interview from his home in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Becker's show had initially been booked at the Improv for one month, and it played for four. Not long after "Defending the Caveman" plays in Salt Lake City, Becker will be taking it back to San Francisco - but not the intimate Improv (now a blues club). This time it will move into the 2,500-seat Golden Gate Theatre.

For its Salt Lake engagement, the Theater League of Utah will present "Caveman" for eight performances, Sept. 9-14, at the Capitol Theatre.

Becker takes the "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" approach back a few years earlier - as Neanderthal "hunters" (men) and "gatherers" (women). In a humorous sendup of Anthropology 101, he contends that men's and women's basic differences haven't changed much over the centuries.

Oh, maybe the tools are different. Instead of a spear and hunting for wild game, men today use the remote control to go channel-hunting on TV.

In fact, even "Mars/Venus" author John Gray has seen "Defending the Caveman." His widely publicized impressions: "Absolutely brilliant! Rob Becker explores the differences between men and women with warmth, insight and compassion. `Caveman' should be seen by anyone who wants to understand the opposite sex."

When "Defending the Caveman" was making the transition from club-style venues into big, vaudeville-era theaters, Becker's publicists began sending out invitations to therapists. The tactic has been successful.

"When we did the show in Dallas, we invited 100 of them to see the show for free," Becker told Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times, just before his Stone Age view of marriage opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre in March of 1995. "They loved it. We got letters - they were sending their clients and colleagues."

The same spin was taken in Washington, D.C. (600 therapists invited), Chicago (3,000) and New York (where 20,000 invitations were mailed out).

The therapists' word-of-mouth must have worked incredibly well. By the time the Broadway version of the comedy closed just a few weeks ago - after two years - it had surpassed Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" and earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running solo play in Broadway history.

Like the men and women Becker talks about in his play, "Defending the Caveman" just sort of evolved.

"It all started at a party. Erin (his wife) had gone off with her own circle of friends, and I found myself as the only man in a group of women. They were talking about relationships, then - with this vexed attitude - they started questioning me. I got defensive, in a funny way, and they started laughing. When we got home, I told Erin what had happened.

" `Well, if you can explain that to them, then maybe you can explain this to me,' she said, then started asking me questions with that same kind of vexed, pointed attitude, and I started explaining it to her and she started laughing.

"I had been doing standup comedy up until that point, so my first thought was `This stuff really is funny.' I had been trying to think of an idea for a one-person show - actually since I'd seen Lily Tomlin do her show," he said. "What has always worked best for me is to come up with building blocks of ideas, then take little pieces of it on stage - one at a time - until my whole act is set."

He was pleased to hear that the Capitol Theatre seats only about 2,000.

"Everyone wants to put me in a 5,000-seat theater. In Chicago, the Auditorium seats 4,000 and the Chicago seats 3,200, but I fought really hard to get the 2,000-seat Shubert - and won."

Becker's next project, drawing upon what he's been learning as the father of a boy, 4, and girl, 21/2, will take a "Cavedad" approach.

"I'm facing the same issues as a father that I did as a husband, except it's a little like being on parole. I'll be explaining fatherhood to the mothers."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Tickets, times

Performances of the Theater League of Utah's presentation of "Defending the Caveman" will be Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets are $20, $25, $32.50 and $37.50 for all performances except Friday and Saturday evenings, when they range from $25 to $40. All seats are reserved. For reservations, call 355-2787 or stop at the ArtTix box office at the Capitol Theatre or selected Albertsons stores along the Wasatch Front.