By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Revenge is for suckers," says Henry Gondorff, Paul Newman's character in The Sting. Among con artists the rule is you get stung, you move on. Don't try to get even. Because if the grifter is good, you'll end up getting taken all over again.
Santaland Diaries opens December 7 at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, 972-450-6232.
That's just about what happens to Evan Wyler, the attractive young sucker in Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, a satirical commentary on the hazards of fame now playing at Fort Worth's Stage West. We first set eyes on Evan, played by blandly handsome Adam Martin, at a Manhattan magazine photo shoot, where he's being convinced by a fast-talking photographer (Dennis Yslas) to remove his shirt and strike a seductive pose. He does it, willing to strip to his socks and stand on his head if it will help publicize his first novel, which took him nine years to finish.
Stuck in that limbo between a writer's critical and financial success, Evan is reduced to looking for temp work to pay rent. Out of the blue he's invited to share petit déjeuner at a trendy Midtown hotel with the glamorous Alexa Vere de Vere (Jody Rudman). She's seen him in the magazine spread and is ready to gush. Purring that "you are sans doubt my favorite new writer," she reaches into her tiny, shiny handbag and produces a fist-sized wad of greenbacks, first of many weekly payments to Evan if he will collaborate on a screenplay based on her wildly colorful life.
Before the brioche is cold, Evan has agreed to the unorthodox arrangement. He doesn't flinch when she asks him to put the lunch on his credit card—something about her accountant being fussy and needing receipts—and besides, he's distracted by one of her many conversational U-turns. "If you absolutely had to sleep with one of the Three Stooges," she asks, "which one would it be? If you say Larry, I mean, God help you."
All of this happens in the first 10 minutes of As Bees in Honey Drown, and as opening scenes of straight plays go, these are as brisk and bracing as gulps of good Champagne. Like ambitious and impressionable Evan, we are meant to be dazzled and fast, from the rapid whoosh of the dialogue to the sound and spectacle of the exotic Alexa character. She's an original, a multilayered confection, as young and flirty as Sally Bowles, as verbally eccentric as Auntie Mame and as wealthy and viciously seductive as Norma Desmond. From her first entrance, we (and overawed Evan) should want more, more, more of Alexa Vere de Vere.
Quel disappointment then to realize about 10 and a half minutes into this production that Stage West will be giving us less, less, less of Alexa and everything else that should be utterly fabulous about Bees. Too quickly it turns from bubbly to flat. From razzle-dazzle to frazzle. It's as if director Jim Covault, who also is credited (with Peggy Kruger-O'Brien) as costume designer, were tone-deaf to the material. Hasn't he ever watched Entertainment Tonight or listened to Joan and Melissa dish designer duds on a red carpet?
Bees, written in 1997, is all about that world of label whores and eager star-effers. It vaunts "the hum, the buzz, the hype, the flash." Salted with dropped names and hipper-than-thou pop culture references lifted from Page Six, Beane's play comments on the Warholian phenomenon of being awarded fame without the paying of dues. Says Alexa to Evan, "Fame without achievement is the safest bet." And this was years before Paris and Nicole emerged as talent-free celebrity X-rays.
There's so much to have fun with here that it's doubly unforgivable that Stage West's version comes off as mutton dressed as lamb. Alexa, a great role that begs to be played to the hilt, is made too pixie-ish by Jody Rudman. She's created a funny non-specific accent for the character—somewhere between the growl of Kathleen Turner and the vowels of Uma Thurman—but otherwise she's surprisingly timid under her geometric bob of black hair. She has to amp up the vamp if she's going to be believable luring gay Evan to her bed (a plot turn borrowed from Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's), much less working the short con on him convincingly.
Rudman begins to find her footing more in a flashback in the second act, when we see her undergo the transformation from a silly girl named Brenda into Alexa, a woman of mysterious provenance who can talk the nearly famous into doing whatever she asks. But the actress in some sense is only as good as her outfits, and everything about Alexa's wardrobe in this production is wrong. No woman like this would wear flats to a fancy lunch. Heels, darling, heels. Great clackety Samantha Jones spikes. And that polyester black suit? Tragique. Sparkly cocktail dress? A horror.
The set, also perpetrated by Covault, continues on the theme of bad design, consisting of badly upholstered gray cubes for furniture and some pages ripped out of glossy mags and hung from strings on either end of the acting space. A photo of the Manhattan skyline is stapled to the wall. In set design, there's minimalism and then there's...whatever this is.