While many megatuners reveal unanticipated strengths when given an intimate staging, Havok Theater Company’s 99-seat revival only accentuates the overblown crassness of 1993’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a reduction of Manuel Puig’s chilling allegory into a trite male-male romance with vaguely political pretensions. There’s a first-rate starring performance and plenty of excitingly executed Lee Martino choreography (even if it’s more Vegas than Venezuela), but helmer Nick DeGruccio simply shoves a kitschy Broadway show into tighter quarters.
Few odd-couple pairings offer more potential for pity and terror than that of Puig’s repeatedly tortured and tempted cellmates. Gay window dresser and convicted pedophile Molina (Chad Borden) drapes himself in silk to seek a quantum of solace in the oeuvre of exotic screen goddess Aurora (Terra C. Macleod). Across the way, resisting fascist efforts to break him, muy macho revolutionary Valentin (Daniel Tatar) despises this trivial butterfly while revering the downtrodden in general.
A spellbinding scorpion dance ought to lead to gradual realization of their common humanity, as it certainly does in Puig’s novel and two-hander straight play, as well as the famous 1985 film. But tuner reduces the emotional coloration to one shade, beginning with Valentin’s political emasculation in his first song (“I am through with crusading/All my anger is fading”).
Fading anger is the last trait one wants to see in a Valentin, here turned into a stock juvenile as a petulant Tatar beats his head in self-pitying frustration. The question isn’t whether but when Valentin will get physical with Molina (and librettist Terrence McNally adds a nastily self-serving motive to stain the delicate gesture Puig originally imagined).
Meanwhile, Aurora’s movies are stripped of edgy commentary when turned into showbiz turns (surely the least memorable in the Kander and Ebb catalog), complete with booty-shaking convict chorus boys and all that jazz.
DeGruccio’s decision to have Molina and Valentin unseen during Aurora’s numbers shoves a wedge between characters and material, however well performed by Macleod and company in Martino’s typically savvy, sultry staging. The musical injunction “Learn how not to be where you are” is no longer an ironic aside to prisoners whose misery is too much with them. Since the cellmates are absent, song is merely a lounge act highlight.
Tuner’s one and only acted-out Aurora movie, “Flame of St. Petersburg,” is coarsely directed for mugging and pratfalls — as if diva’s model were less Maria Montez than Betty Hutton — immediately followed by the cliched freedom ballad “The Day After That,” cheesily staged with candles.
A show can theoretically wallow in camp and then turn on a dime to earn integrity points. This one cannot.
Tom Buderwitz’s serviceable two-tier metal grid is well set off by Steven Young’s varied lighting, which keeps finding an expressive balance between realism and theatricality unattended to elsewhere.
Best reason to attend is Borden, surely the Molina of Puig’s or anyone else’s dreams. Instantly believable as a three-year inmate, thesp never begs for sympathy but utterly inhabits this role in myriad attitudes intertwining stubbornness and cowardice, bravado and shame. Always ready to surprise — as in a growled “I will take ladylike bites!” when we expect a simper — Borden consistently applies the kiss of life to an otherwise moribund vehicle.