Flimflam Ma'am

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.

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.

The whole thing starts to feel like a con job. Like being invited to a fancy party, only to discover the host never hired a caterer and expects you to be satisfied with squeeze-cheese on a soggy cracker.

For WaterTower Theatre, David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries is the gift that keeps on giving. For the past five years the Addison theater has perked up holiday-weary theatergoers with sold-out performances of Dallas actor Nye Cooper doing Sedaris' sardonic 75-minute monologue about working the Christmas crunch as an elf at Macy's in Manhattan.

The show goes up again soon, playing twice nightly December 7 through 23. But this year the curly-toed elf shoes are on another actor's feet. Ted Wold now takes on the role of Crumpet, the gayest of Santa's helpers and the only one who sings "Silent Night" in the voice of Billie Holiday. The 46-year-old Wold most recently played the crusading reporter Melvin P. Thorpe in Contemporary Theatre's Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He's a solid comic actor, working steadily in recent seasons at Theatre Three and WaterTower.

A devotee of Sedaris' books and his audio essays on NPR, Wold says his interpretation of Santaland may shift the tone a smidge. "I saw Nye do it four years ago, and what I remember was, I laughed so hard, the person next to me complained," Wold says. "No one's like Nye. It will be almost impossible to duplicate that. I'd just fail miserably if I tried. My angle will be that Crumpet is the smartest guy in the room, but he's not there to mock the institution of Christmas."

Part of what makes Santaland so funny is that everyone who sees it can relate to suffering through an awful short-term job, even if it didn't come with a jingle-bell hat. Wold, who grew up in Minnesota, spent three teenage summers in Dallas working for his uncle, who owned the Roger Meier Cadillac dealership. "I know nothing about cars. I barely know how to drive one. I stocked parts for eight weeks every summer in an un-air-conditioned warehouse. At lunch I watched them play dominoes. This was as foreign to me as a virgin sacrifice. Every day I would think, 'This is why I'm going to college, so I won't have to do this again.'"

Wold finished college and law school and worked as an attorney till the day he fell asleep in court. He now runs his own legal consulting business (first piece of advice: "Stay awake in court"), which allows him to pursue acting roles. He's a favorite of local directors and gets booked up to a year in advance for parts. While performing Santaland, he'll be rehearsing the Michael Frayn drama Democracy, which opens in January at Theatre Three.

"The overlap will be interesting," Wold says. "After three weeks of doing a comedy, I get to play the spy's boss in Democracy. There's no humor at all. That's good. I like to keep myself off balance."

Meanwhile, Nye Cooper, having handed Crumpet's candy cane over to a new elf, will be starring in Angela Wilson's Dim All the Lights for Theatre Quorum. That one opens December 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner