Like an enthusiastic puppy which hasn’t been housebroken, Peter Lefcourt’s Drama Queens from Hell, directed by Terri Hanauer, is good-natured and ingratiating, if a bit messy and, at times, frustrating and annoying. However, it’s so eager to please that it’s difficult not to like, and if you’re willing to overlook its flaws, you’ll have a good time.
The story: young, second-rate director Gerard Manville (Paul Galliano) has obtained the rights to remake Sunset Boulevard, the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film about aging silent-film star Norma Desmond, who was played in chew-the-scenery-to-pieces-and-spit-it-up style by actual aging silent-film star Gloria Swanson. The movie is a masterpiece of its kind, but today much of it can be construed as over-the-top camp – and we see why as chunks of it are projected on the back wall during the play.
As soon as the announcement hits the airwaves that Sunset Boulevard is to be remade, every actress of a certain age in Hollywood wants in, and three of them – all clients of scum-of-the-earth agent Artie Paramecium (Rick Podell) – make frantic calls to Artie while he dawdles on the toilet in what appears to be his favorite room.
Maxine Zabar (Christopher Callen) is 57-about-to-turn-58, did enough TV acting back in the day to buy a house, but whose career is now stalled; she’s sure she’ll at least get an Oscar nomination – if not the statuette itself – if she gets the part. Felicia Brown (Dee Freeman) worked a lot in the Blaxploitation films of years ago, but is also, um… underemployed… now and sees no reason why Norma Desmond shouldn’t be African-American.
Finally, Brianne – nee Brian – McCauley (Richard Sabine) is a pre-op transgender woman, whose acting career as a man is over, and is hoping for a new kind of stardom as the first trans-Norma.
Artie visits Gerard at his tacky office and persuades the young filmmaker to audition the three women. The ladies then rush to a vintage-clothing store tended by a film-crazed German shop girl (Andrew Diego) to outfit themselves for the auditions in what they hope will be Norma-appropriate attire.
Long story short: they arrive at Gerard’s office and check in with his autocratic gay assistant Raphael (also played by Mr. Diego); they audition, they’re awful, none of them gets cast, then they each individually visit Gerard’s apartment that night to throw themselves at him sexually. Gerard is discovered in the morning, dead, the official verdict being that he was “loved” to death. Note: the word used in the production is not “loved.”
There are some genuinely clever, funny moments: the scenes used for the auditions are projected on the wall from the actual movie, but with the voice of the actress auditioning substituted for Gloria Swanson’s. Seeing Ms Freeman’s line readings appear to come out of Ms Swanson’s mouth is a scream, as is Ms Freeman’s down-and-dirty interpretation of Norma Desmond’s famous last walk down the staircase as she gets ready for her closeup.
Mr. Sabine’s fantasy Oscar acceptance speech, in which he thanks Caitlyn and Chaz, the other nominees in the Best Trans Performance category, is equally hootworthy, as is the concept of an acting guru’s book being titled Be Who You’re Being Paid To Be. The biggest laugh the night I attended, though, came from Mr. Diego’s simple “Shut Up!” exclaimed delightedly by his German shop girl in response to a film mention.
There are logical holes in the story big enough to drive an Isotta Fraschini through – starting with how did a young, unsuccessful filmmaker get the rights to remake Sunset Boulevard? – but if you’re gonna be picky about logic, this show isn’t for you. The saga is narrated by Gerard, and the presentational style is done to such an extent that almost everything is directed out toward the audience; a little less explanation, and a little more interaction among the characters would be welcome.
But the biggest problems, in my opinion, are, first, that the show is simply not as outrageous as it should be. Don’t get me wrong: I love bad taste, and the first couple of moments of Drama Queens from Hell hold out the promise that we’re in for a night of it. But in the end, it’s not nearly as outre as I think it thinks it is.
Part of that may stem from the second problem, which is that there are too many times when the actors – and the script – tell us how funny it is, rather than just doing it and letting us find out. The most successful parodies – such as Women Behind Bars and the plays of Charles Ludlam – are those where the characters take themselves and their predicaments with deadly earnestness, and the actors play it that way. There’s a little too much winking at the audience here, and while casually breaking the fourth wall can have its charms, in this case it dissipates the tension and makes the whole evening a bit more goofily endearing and safe than I think is intended. Despite a liberal use of profanity, this Drama Queens from Hell is closer in tone to Drama Queens from Heck.
Also, for my money, the show would be much stronger if fifteen minutes (and the intermission) were cut and a dozen or so more laugh-out-loud jokes added. Oh, and get rid of the truly cringe-worthy ending, which has nothing to do with the rest of the show and feels as if it were tacked on in desperation twenty minutes before curtain.
But, in fairness, the audience on the night I attended seemed to be having a swell time, laughin’ and clappin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’. So what do I know?
Drama Queens from Hell
Written by Peter Lefcourt
Directed by Terri Hanauer
Through September 25
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 323-960-7787 or www.plays411.com/dramaqueens