Semi-sweet

As Bees in Honey Drown almost satisfies your sugar fix

What is it about gay men and straight women? Or, to phrase it more explicitly: Why are so many gay men drawn to powerful, emotional women? In theory, we shouldn't give a damn about the female personality: most men (hetero and homo) are hounds, eager to bury our bones in any back yard we can find. Yet male homosexuals have throughout the centuries fashioned a cult from our admiration for the gender many of us will never know in the, um, Biblical way in which straight men and women know each other. We pay tribute, instead, to tempestuous, nontraditionally beautiful actresses like Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell and Judy Garland.

Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, given its North Texas premiere courtesy of Theatre Three, gleefully raises the question of why these worship-relationships develop, and then admirably doesn't answer it. But you have to hunt for these queries amidst the larger, more tiresome theme of Beane's script: America's obsession with celebrity. While granting that it's an important issue in our media-saturated culture, I also must admit I've had it up to here with discussions of how fame leads people to do crazy things. Fame is one of the reasons I have come to appreciate theater so much: I don't have to bother with it on stage, I just have to consider how good or bad a particular artist is at communicating an idea or emotion. But plays about celebrity can be ironic in a nauseating way: Too many tracts purport to eviscerate stardom even as they uphold it.

Perhaps some of my impatience with As Bees in Honey Drown has to do with the theatrical brand of celebrity and how it leads to a kind of audience programming: I saw this show off-Broadway two years ago, amid a crowd of mostly gay men, and they laughed their asses off at things that frankly weren't funny, even if you considered the deeper gay men-straight women stuff. They chortled at all the jokes about fame during a tepid performance, because they were sitting in a famous, much hyped, star-studded (in the audience, anyway: Look, there's Madonna! There's Rosie!) play. They became part of the hype just by witnessing it.

Nevertheless, Theatre Three director Jac Alder should be commended for casting this play much more skillfully than the forgettable, long-running New York show. He has selected his two leads well: Jeffrey Schimdt as the blue-eyed homosexual novelist who comes into the parlor of the charming con artist Cecilia Flores, who poses as a pop music producer. But I still don't know why they never click onstage together. Both are proven talents (especially the marvelous Flores), but neither seemed to expand from the limits of the roles and touch the other. Maybe it was because of the limits of those roles. Or maybe theater vet Alder couldn't get a grasp on a very subtle, slippery concept: the way in which the various media (the press, popular music, movies, TV) force people to reinvent themselves depending on which medium is shining its spotlight.

Scenic designer Harland Wright seems to have much surer footing here, with the best set I've seen at Theatre Three since We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!: A giant notepad painted on the floor is adorned with giant pencils all around, culminating in a Manhattan skyline. It's a wonderfully expressive background for a story about how people write and then rewrite themselves.

Playwright Bean wrote the intermittently funny but mostly atrocious movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and should be credited alone for convincing producers to keep that title. He has written this play as if it were a movie (and it's about to be, with a purportedly major female star in the lead), with flashbacks and quick cuts between scenes. The story follows first novelist Evan (Schmidt), who's getting magazine coverage (a shirtless photo) as a "hot writer." He falls into the company of Alexa Vere de Vere (Flores), a dramatic woman given to hand gestures who refers to her friends as "lamb." She claims to be a music producer who's known simply everyone, and flatters him into writing the story of her life. He, a gay man, is smitten by her lavish mannerisms beyond his ability to realize that they are a cover for a money-scammer. When he discovers he's been had, he goes on a vengeance investigation into her past and learns a potent lesson in how people become--according to Ms. Vere de Vere--"who they should be." Like most of the great female gay icons of the stage and screen, this character has evolved into her present state of glamour from a most unlikely past.

Let me say that I laughed hard several times during As Bees in Honey Drown and was utterly captivated by the performance of Cecilia Flores. She's been acting all over the country for 25 years, and although I've seen only a handful of her performances, I feel confident in declaring that she is an indispensable performer here in Dallas. Maybe she's too good for the role of Alexa Vere de Vere--you find yourself drawn to her, appropriately, like a moth to a bonfire, and then discover that the role she's been given is a dim bulb. Technically, it requires much of an actress--timing, theatricality, wit, and different voices, all of which Flores delivers in spades. But the difference between a shallow character and a shallowly written role is dangerously close. And there is little genuine chemistry between her and the other actors. I've liked her co-star Jeffrey Schmidt before, and he's not bad here, but once again he never seems to bust out and take fire like this insecure but passionate character should. Because Flores is the more riveting performer, Schmidt suffers by comparison.

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