Nervous collapse has never seemed as alluring as it does in Lypsinka’s latest show, a solid hour of emotional meltdown that is the giddy delight of a sleepy summer theater season. Even that hip-hugging strait-jacket the performer models in the show’s opening moments has an undeniable chic, worn as it is above a leg-baring skirt composed of layers of green fringe.
The hilarious disconnect between the idealized poise that once betokened a real lady and the emotional distress all dames are heir to could be called Lypsinka’s stock in trade. Her scrupulously correct maquillage (credit to Louis Braun for re-creating the look of a classic Irving Penn model) and exquisitely tailored costumes (here by Bryant Hoven) frame a face and body that are continually being bombarded by demons of lust, envy, despair, rage and other extreme emotional states. The contrast is played to the hilarious hilt here, as our impeccably correct heroine ricochets from girlish delight to hard-boiled cynicism to frenzied horror, mostly caused by the virus that is “l’amour, l’amour.”
The voices are, of course, not the lady’s own — and the lady, for the uninitiated, is no lady: She’s a multitalented fellow named John Epperson. Epperson is a master at orchestrating deranged little arias of angst from snippets of movie dialogue ranging from classic camp (generous, and warmly applauded, doses of La Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest”) to imponderably obscure. One of the most choice, and curious, cuts from this performance is a recording of makeup tips and other advice to young ladies delivered in a smooth voice that suggests a 1950s TV hostess on a high dose of antidepressants. Epperson’s delivery matches the slightly disquieting tone perfectly. (Useful note for theater critics: Wear a pair of long evening gloves, “and you’re apt to find the play better.” Must try that sometime!)
As usual, transitions are sometimes accompanied by bursts of stabbing strings in the style of Bernard Herrmann, accompanied by wide-eyed looks of horror, the face framed by hands clenched in various hyper-dramatic poses. Another favorite Lypsinka motif is the endlessly ringing telephone –purveyor of bad news, it mostly appears, from the increasingly distraught manner in which it is answered.
Everyone’s favorite moment of over-the-top screen diva emotionalism is probably in here somewhere. There’s Gloria Swanson preening in “Sunset Boulevard,” Bette Davis griping in “Beyond the Forest,” Piper Laurie recalling the devil of lust in “Carrie,” Joan Crawford suffering stoically in I forget what, Elizabeth Taylor losing control in “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Butterfield 8,” just for starters. Some underemotionalism gets a look-in, too: I think we heard from Sharon Tate in “Valley of the Dolls.” But a dry list of selections can’t suggest the brilliant manner in which Epperson stitches these morsels of dialogue together, and it’s also impossible to describe how exquisitely he mimics or distorts the emotional tone of every last sigh and syllable, adding a thin, glossy layer of mockery that is always affectionate, never derisive.
The show is not all devoted to celebrating the various ways in which movie heroines have been done wrong and got their own back. There are generous musical diversions, too, starting with one of the more celebrated acts of showbiz desperation: Ethel Merman’s famous disco album, represented by “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Other rarities include Lauren Bacall croaking out “But Alive” from “Applause,” and Carol Burnett chirping “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged” from the little-known Jule Styne/Comden and Green show “Fade Out — Face In.”
The moral of that ditty is a lesson all of the evening’s put-upon heroines should take to heart: You’re never so low that things can’t get worse. In which case, the best advice is to emulate Lypsinka’s approach to matters of the heart, which might be summed up thus: No humiliation is too great, no fit of hysterics too painful, to justify the cardinal offense of letting the mascara run.