The hum, the buzz, the hype, the flash, the flame… this is the only thing that matters.” So states Alexa Vere de Vere (Peri Gilpin), pretentious, predatory con woman and self-invented embodiment of every superficial show business value. Alexa, the scheming centerpiece of Douglas Carter Beane’s slashing satire “As Bees in Honey Drown,” was so relevant in 1997 that the production became an Off Broadway smash and won Outer Critics Circle and Obie awards. Her defense of image over achievement carries even more weight now, but the new Pasadena Playhouse version is handicapped by hollow posing, erratic comic timing and lack of an appropriately extravagant style.
Gilpin’s Alexa is visually striking in Randy Gardell’s chic black suit and red shoes, and Roy Christopher’s clever art deco set is an ideal background when she praises gay first-time novelist Evan (Chad Willett) for his semi-nude magazine photo and “lunged for a copy.” But as Alexa encircles Evan in a web of seduction and flattery, she becomes less intriguing, and we’re quickly aware that her literary forebears — Holly Golightly, Sally Bowles — are fuller, more bewitching creations. Though ingratiating, vivacious and likeable, Gilpin lacks mystery. Oddly enough, even her Roz on “Frasier” is edgier and more cutting than the calculating Alexa.
Nevertheless, Evan is drawn in when Alexa asks him to write a movie of her life, blissfully unaware that his credit cards are being raped, and after a brief sexual interlude between them, Alexa disappears, leaving the young author debt-ridden and disillusioned. Combing the city for her past victims, he confronts jaded record exec Morris Kaden (David Shatraw, also excellent as a resentful rock star and smarmy celebrity photographer), and most important, Mike (Cameron Watson), the struggling painter who transformed her from classless, frizzy-haired Brenda Gelb into an elegant charlatan.
As luckless Evan, Willett possesses the requisite ingenuous appeal, but he swallows key lines and substitutes sincerity for comedic flair. It’s hard to understand why Alexa perceives him as a fit partner for future cons. Willett is better at expressing anger, and his final cry of rage is the strongest note in an otherwise uneven portrayal.
Overshadowing the two leads, Watson gives act two a jolt of electricity. Director Sheldon Epps skillfully brings out his charm and authority as an actor, inadvertently revealing that Watson would have been more convincing in the Evan role. When the actor delivers such lines as “Brenda told them I was dead … I had hanged myself from a street lamp outside of a brothel,” the story gains an impetus that dissipates when his character is offstage.
Kate Steele and Iona Morris play six people. Both demonstrate admirable versatility, and Michael Gilliam’s lighting enhances the action and keeps up dramatically with frequent set changes. Only technical drawback is a poundingly repetitive rock cue, which is too intent on drumming up excitement and only proves distracting.
Even in its diminished form, however, Beane’s indictment of 15-minute fame and hunger for applause has resonance, and the whole enterprise is worth watching for Shatraw’s cynical observation, “Nothing is like the first big screw. The screw that toughens the skin for all future screw attempts.”