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Semi-sweet

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.  

One actor who does stand out--and electrifies the second act with his too-late appearance--is James Crawford as a painter and former consort of Alexa Vere de Vere's.

He appears early and fleetingly as a new-wave rocker who roughs up Schmidt, but takes off that sitcom garb and relaxes into a funny, off-hand, flirtatious performance as a man who's survived Ms. Vere de Vere and lived to tell the tale. He performs that toughest of theatrical tricks--he's an average-looking guy who convinces the lead actor (and us) into falling hard for him through sheer charm.

As a gay man who reveres controversial, colorful women, I should have adored As Bees in Honey Drown in both New York and Dallas. So what gives? I'm going to split the blame between playwright Douglas Carter Beane and Jac Alder. The latter has so much rich, red, pliant clay to work with in this show (I'm talking about the actors, not the script), he doesn't have an excuse for the disharmony of shape on display here. Approaching it from different angles, you'll think it's great one minute and disappointing the next. By all means, see it, if only because of Cecilia Flores' delicious performance. But expect to feel hungry three hours after you've left the theater.

As Bees in Honey Drown runs through May 15. Call (214) 871-3300

Big fish
Is it a bad sign when your life partner snoozes through half of the world premiere of your latest, lavishly expensive performance-art piece? I'm going to give Lou Reed the benefit of the doubt on this one--most likely, he'd just flown in during a crazy schedule. And he's probably been living with Moby Dick, the most ambitious show Laurie Anderson has mounted in 15 years, for the better part of a year. Still, it was hard to keep a straight face as Reed, sitting across the aisle at McFarlin Auditorium, was bent over in his seat almost double, like he was in hyperventilation recovery.

And Anderson is Anderson, constantly challenging herself and us with this kind of material. It's going to be a hard sell to audiences, though, which is why I love her all the more. She doesn't care about whittling herself down to fit a demographic.

All joking about Reed's nap aside, there is a dolorous quality to Moby Dick that lulls you like the "Hawaiian Surf" setting on a white-noise machine. The gigantic images of crashing waves and psychedelic coral reefs; the sounds of dripping or rushing water; the beautiful, imploring strains of Anderson's electric violin that begin both acts. Add to that the fact that this may be the least humorous show Anderson has ever mounted, and you have a beautifully constructed but densely philosophical show (in this latter aspect, much like the book Moby Dick).

Anderson's show seems to fetishize words, words, words: Many times, they literally tumble and stumble across the giant screens in front of you, as the alphabet does in many a Sesame Street montage. Early on, one actor--referring to what many audiences won't bring to this grim spectacle--even says: "I'll be honest. I haven't read the book." The evening's funniest break has Anderson, her voice modulated to sound butch, stroll through a library and plop down in a chair, explaining how a very old movie version is absurdly different from the book.

There is much to admire about Anderson's Moby Dick, and there is much to cause befuddlement and even boredom. Quite frankly, there's too little Anderson and too many Anderson-like performances from the other actors--Tom Nellis as Ahab, in a giant smoking pipe hat, comes the closest to standing out in his blustery but bull's-eye delivery.

Yet even he, during his non-Ahab roles, looks as though he's doing a Laurie Anderson impression. This is all her show (and bravo!), but you should believe they've tapped other actors only to advance her adaptation:  

This show stays firmly within Laurie-land, even though Ms. Anderson spends less time on stage than usual. Anderson's Moby Dick is a long, lyrical, rather morose journey--it's not eager to make friends with charming patter. Once you accept that, you're ready to set sail.


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