Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: Psycho Beach Party

Posted by David

If this past week is any indication, summer is nearly upon us.  Time to start breaking out your swimsuits, sun glasses and multiple personalities!

At least, that is the de rigueur beach-wear featured in the Pipeline Theatre Company's exuberant and bouyant production of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party playing for a woefully short run at the Theatres at 45 Bleeker, located in the East Village.

John Early as Chicklet, flanked by Shane Zeigler as Nicky (l) and Brian Maxsween as Yo-Yo (r).  Photo by Suzi Sadler.

Mounting a production of a work by Charles Busch is a daunting proposition.  His plays (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Lady in Question, Die, Mommy, Die, et. al.) falls squarely in the school of intelligent camp.  You must utilize an intellectual rigor to be aware of the various references and homages tucked into the narrative, as well as an unabashed willingness to embrace the balls-to-the-wall over-the-top nature of the characters and the dialogue.  Veer too much toward the former and the work is dry and flat.  Cater too much in the other direction and the production becomes shrill and unhinged.

It is to their credit that the Pipeline crew walks this tightrope nearly flawlessly in their revival of Busch's tribute to the classic 60's beach movie cum psycho-drama.  Direction by company member and artistic director Daniel Johnsen keeps things moving at a brisk pace, allowing the frenetic nature of the story to unfold like a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello flick on acid.  Johnsen has kept the actors all on the same delightful page of lunacy, reveling in the corny surfer-dude lingo and out-sized emotions.  In the center of the action is Chicklet, an aspiring surfer girl with a dark psychological secret.  Kudos must go to John Early who takes on the role (essayed by Busch in the original production).  Early is pitch-perfect, gently winking to the audience regarding the gender-bending nature of his role, without straying from the true, throbbing heart of the teenage girl he portrays.  His performance is tireless and honest.

Admirably supporting Early is Jenny Donheiser as the bookish (and potentially sapphic) best friend, Berdine.  Her character's intermittent diary soliloquies can be potentially dull or confusing but Donheiser pumps them with life and a clear connection to the odd philosophical references peppered throughout.  Rounding out the girlfriends is the man-hungry Marvel Ann, played fearlessly by Laura Durst.

The surfers are led by the great Kanaka (Brad Mielke), his chief acolyte Star Cat (Erik Olson) and surfer buds Provoloney (Eric Williams) and Yo-Yo (Brian Maxsween).  Mielke nails the faux-gravitas of the beach bum as paternal sage and has great fun with Kanaka's hidden affinity for masochism.  Olson is sweet and brash as the young turk of the Malibu beach scene and has an easy camaraderie with his fellow surfers.  Williams and Maxsween have a delightful chemistry together as two pals whose relationship runs deeper than they initially realize.

Seemingly tottering about on stilts, Alex Mills, as Chicklet's Mildred Pierce-esque mother Mrs. Forrest, delightfully channels every starched matriarch from Joan Crawford to Barbara Stanwyck.  Also part of the mayhem, Janna Emig portrays on-the-lam movie starlet Bettina Barnes with a generous dollop of kittenish ego.  Rounding out the cast are Meagan Kensil and Shane Ziegler as Dee Dee and Nicky, who gamely make the most out of their rather small and thankless roles, although they do have a delightful pas de deux in the second half of the show.

While production values are slim, the design team of Sam Dash (set), T. Rick Hayashi (lights), Seth Clayton (sound) and Zealan Salemi (costumes) do much with very little to credibly create the world of the play.  Mr. Hayashi in particular does great work in indicating the numerous changes in time and place with subtle shifts of light.

And since this is the Queer New York blog, I would be remiss in not noting that all the men in the cast (heck the women, too) look rather fetching in their beach gear.

The Pipeline Theatre Company is a promising new group, comprised mainly of former and current students of the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School through the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.  The enthusiasm of these emerging artists is palpable and they have a clear love for, as well as a credible grasp of, the theatrical milieu.  They also have some impressive fans.  At the performance I attended, I sat next to Hunter Bell ([title of show]), who was quite cordial and chatty, and saw Kristen Johnston (Third Rock From the Sun), who is an instructor at the Atlantic Theater Company program, at a reception held after the performance.  This is definitely a company to watch, even if you can't catch this current production.

Psycho Beach Party runs only through April 17th at the Theatres at 45 Bleeker (45 Bleeker Street at Lafayette Street).  For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit  Hurry!

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