|Joey C. Pelletier and Mike Budwey get to know each other.|
Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party is always something of a showcase for its star (Busch himself played the lead in its premiere); but that impression goes double for the current Happy Medium/Heart & Dagger production closing this weekend at the Factory Theatre. Fringe bad-boy Joey C. Pelletier (full disclosure: a friend of The Hub Review) tears through the show in high style as Chicklet, the Gidget-like tomboy who morphs into multiple personalities at the drop of a beach ball. Joey was born to play this part, he knows it, and whenever he's on stage, Busch's game of psycho-sexual bingo suddenly heats up the beach. But beyond his best-of-the-year performance, things sometimes get patchy on this particular patch of sand.
The play itself has pretensions to being more than a drag vehicle - although in this early, pasted-together pastiche Busch is a long way from the later craft of such successes as The Allergist's Wife. Still, Psycho does evince something of his life-long interest in the intersection between drag performance, how femininity plays out in pop culture, and the only half-glimpsed, actual "feminine" psyche itself - perhaps tellingly, the script even concludes with a "Siamese-twin" act (featuring a male and female character fighting it out in the same sequined gown) that echoes Busch's own first play, Sister Act.
Thus Busch's Chicklet may seem to be all conventional sweetness and light on the surface - she only wants to learn to surf with the rude dudes who prefer her more buxom friends - but lying in wait just beneath her innocent demeanor lie a dominatrix bent on world conquest, a sassy black girlfriend, and even a Jewish accounting firm, all of whom break out at inopportune times to wreak havoc. And just as Chicklet careens between these personae (one of whom may be a serial killer!), the play itself swings between riffs on Beach Blanket Bingo, Hitchcock's Marnie, and a raft of other movies and shows.
Joey scores in almost all his many roles, I'm glad to report - although surely his throatily commanding dominatrix, "Anne Bowman!", counts as the high point of the show. The rest of the cast has potential, and director Barbara DiGirolamo has captured the right goofily sun-baked tone - but the pace tends to drag (when it should snap), and to be honest there are just too many technical issues in the acting. One actor doesn't speak up enough, while another constantly shouts; and there's a tentative feel to too many scenes. Perhaps most problematically, a key role is obviously meant to channel the fabulously crazy Joan Crawford, but doesn't.
Still, choreographer Kiki Samko comes through with a groovy surfboard dance, the soundtrack is perfect, and the kids look hot in their beachwear - while we stay cool thanks to improvised air-conditioning (yes, in the Factory Theatre!). Plus there's a nicely snotty turn from Amy Meyer as teen queen Marvel Ann, and Lauren Foster shows potential as a spoiled movie star, while Mike Budwey is turned on most amusingly by his humiliation at the hands of Anne Bowman (above left). I wouldn't say this Beach Party quite hits the crazy heights it should, but Joey's performance is certainly one for the local history books.