Uptown Players Drag Forth A Faye-Ragious Mommie Queerest; Watertower's Receptionist Leaves No Message

Serious theater exploring the existential boundaries of the human condition, provoking deep thoughts and stirring the soul—Uptown Players' production of Jamie Morris' Mommie Queerest does none of that. Thank God.

After months of downers and drear, we kvell in the quick quippery of Mommie Queerest, an all-male tribute to and teardown of Mommie Dearest, the terrible-wonderful 1981 biopic of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, based on her daughter Christina's bestselling, mom-blasting memoir. Dearest is a stupendously awful movie, and Queerest does to it what its Crawford did to those rose bushes, whack away madly, maniacally, hilariously, not only at the glamour monster herself but at Faye Dunaway's career-quelling performance.

Playing the title role in Mommie Queerest is the only Dallas actor who could do it right: Coy Covington. Working wide shoulder pads, ankle straps and a look in his eyes that says "I'm a red-hot box of crazy," Covington, frequent star of Uptown's hide-the-candy comedies, does Dunaway-as-Crawford to a sweet 'n' sour turn. He's studied the nuances (or lack of them) in Dunaway's high-pitched screen performance. So has the audience in the Rose Room above the Station 4 gay nightclub in Oak Lawn, where Uptown is producing the show (no one under 21 admitted). The crowd knows the movie's best lines so well they shout them in unison with the actors. It's the mocky horror picture show.

Mommie Queerest goes for the joke-ular in an almost scene-for-scene tribute to the film, but with added dialogue by Morris (who played the lead in the show's 2005 debut in Provincetown) that's as twisted as its subject's idea of motherhood. Morris' rewrite of Crawford's life suggests she had darker secrets than the occasional clean-freak harangue. The woman who so convincingly played butch in Johnny Guitar, posits Morris, might actually have been "Johnny Kaminski," a dude from the Bronx.

"You know what's missing from my life?" Joan asks her boyfriend in the play. He fires back: "Estrogen?"

Uptown Players' actors attack this raunchy material like ravens on roadkill. Among the Queerest quartet—Covington, Chad Peterson, Paul J. Williams and Kevin Moore—they take on 25 characters. As Joan, Covington can twist his face instantly from glam-drag beautiful to something more sister-of-Baby-Jane. He's such a gifted physical comic, he convulses the crowd with a glance or a tiny tug on his wig, each gesture impeccably timed. Covington even has funny hands, as seen in the play's opening video sequence (nicely done by Mike Morgan in a style that mirrors the feature film's first scene).

Going mug to mug with Covington is Peterson as Christina. He's got the part divvied up between the movie's Mara Hobel moments (she was the chubby-cheeked little Christina) to the transition into teenage years with actress Diana Scarwid's flat Southern accent (another of the film's memorable flaws). Peterson also plays two important men in Joan's life, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and Pepsi-Cola president Al Steele, whose death prompts Joan's "This ain't my first time at the rodeo" outburst. As the star's revolving entourage of secretaries, maids, reporters and others are Williams, who's a scream, and Moore, who's more of a slight chuckle. In 90 minutes these guys jump in and out of costumes and wigs in 32 scenes, all flashing by so fast that had director Andi Allen not provided super-titles on a screen above the stage, it would be impossible to follow the locales (the simple set by Dennis Canright doesn't change).

Like Morris' previous summer hit for Uptown Players, the all-male Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, the point of Mommie Queerest is to make great entertainment from a mediocre source. But this time, the parody itself is as thin as a strip of celluloid. With Allen's layering of physical comedy bits, and the cast's ability to ad lib, however, they manage to triumph over Morris' script, which is almost too loyal to the movie. He's held onto all but a couple of its outrageous mother-daughter moments. The best: the ridiculous swim-racing scene, which in this production has Christina dog-paddling across a fabric pool as Joan "backstrokes" past. Runner-up is the panty-baring fight that starts with teenage Tina screaming "I'm not one of your faaaaaaaaans!" Here it turns into a wrestling match called by a fight announcer (Moore).

Missing, darn it, is the episode where old Joan subs for an ailing Christina on the soap opera The Secret Storm, the equivalent of Goldie Hawn stepping in for Kate Hudson. In the film it shows off Faye at her most far-out.

Some of Mommie Queerest's spoofery does go a little too berserk. Even with a great sight gag worked in, the wire hanger bit doesn't quite hang together. And it's funny when stubborn little Christina refuses to eat rare meat and the prop steak shoots blood like a geyser. It's just not funny the 10th time Peterson squirts it at the audience.

The best way to ride the waves of Mommie Queerest is first to drown for several hours in the high tide of terrible acting of Mommie Dearest on DVD or almost any day of the week on cable. A few of the Rose Room's cocktails (served throughout the show) further heighten the experience, but aren't absolutely necessary. This is cheap-drunk comedy, as broad and silly as a Carol Burnett sketch—but filled with words she never could have used on television. We are one of its faaaaaaaaans.

"May I put you into his voicemail?" The title character in Adam Bock's one-act thriller The Receptionist asks it in a tone both friendly and impersonal. With the well-honed fake sincerity of company front-desk guardians everywhere, Beverly Wilkins dispatches callers into the limbo-land of the phone system. Her boss at the generic-sounding "northeast office" is away from his desk. No, she doesn't know when he'll be back. And into his voicemail they go.

For the first half-hour of this 2005 play, now onstage in the last of WaterTower Theatre's studio space "Discovery Series," Beverly, played by Nancy Sherrard (last seen here in Doubt), deftly juggles dozens of personal and business calls. Punching between multiple lines, she consoles friends, counsels a daughter, chides her husband for spending phone bill money on his teacup collection and directs all business inquiries into voicemail as quickly as possible. It's funny like The Office and Office Space, Beverly guarding the good pens so closely she marks on her calendar when she loans one out.

Expert at looking busy but eager for diversion, Beverly starts shallow chats with Lorraine (Jennifer Pasion), a perpetually late-arriving co-worker who unloads dating woes over coffee and pastries. They're both intrigued by a handsome visitor, Mr. Dart (Robert McCollum), who seems to be an executive type from the important-sounding "central office." Lorraine flirts even after finding out he's married and a dad.

The light banter of the first half of this play evaporates with one searing line of dialogue uttered by Mr. Raymond (Randy Pearlman) when he finally blusters into the office. After that, nothing's funny, just confusing. Who are these people? What is this "northeast office"?

Bock doesn't answer the questions, and this production, directed by Marianne Galloway, so rushes the build-up to the big turning point that it zips past the playwright's intent, even if it is an obvious one, to redefine the banality of evil. Just when we're getting dialed in to The Receptionist, we're sent away without the chance to get its message.