As the jaded pair at the center of “The Wild Party,” Valarie Pettiford and Eric Anderson give magnificent performances in the fervent Blank Theater Company reading of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s ambitious musical. More elegant than electrifying, with flashes of decadence erupting, this “Wild Party” will satisfy the LaChiusa cult and adventurous theatergoers.
Based on the 1928 verse novel by Joseph Moncure Marsh that inspired William S. Burroughs’ writing career, the LaChiusa-Wolfe “Party” is more surreal than Andrew Lippa’s 2000 Off Broadway take (done to a one-night turn this spring by Musical Theater Guild, also with Anderson as Burrs). Director Daniel Henning sends his principals down the aisle before the red drop that masks Aaron Francis’ functional set. Anderson’s Burrs appears in black face, and musical director David O.’s top-flight band rocks out; political correctness is hardly “Wild Party’s” concern.
After a hangover-induced battle, vulnerable chorine Queenie (Pettiford) and downward-spiraling comic Burrs (Anderson) decide to throw a bathtub-gin revel, its guest list running the Jazz Age gamut. Queenie tests Burr’s psychotic jealousy by flirting with Black (Innis Casey), the boy toy of her rival Kate (choreographer Jane Lanier). After the orgy comes the dawn and sudden, ironic tragedy.
“Wild Party” succeeds as a series of quasi-Brechtian turns. Pettiford’s work is revelatory, and Anderson has awe-inspiring intensity. Kirsten Benton Chandler’s lesbian is an arch hoot. Her girlfriend, Daisy Eagan, is an eerie Dadaist moppet. The D’Armano Brothers, an incestuous Nicholas Brothers-styled act, find original cast member Nathan Lee Graham and Daren A. Herbert landing every fillip. James Black and Julie Dixon Jackson make fine interracial sparring partners. In a role created by Eartha Kitt, veteran Sally Kellerman defines world-weary. Sam Zeller’s “ambisextrous” cokehead, Jackie, and Peter Van Norden and Michael Kostroff as unhappily Jewish producers are other standouts. Casey’s Black, a ringer for Tyrone Power, is a drawback, appealing but anachronistic and not exactly charismatic.
Although Francis’ set is hardly evocative, Dana Peterson’s vintage costumes and Steven Young’s superb lights take up the slack. Lanier has some good musical staging ideas, and when Henning’s friezes dovetail with LaChiusa’s intent, they crackle.
The show’s central flaw is its standoff between the central story and spinning the kaleidoscope. If party as entity is the star, what happens when it’s over?