This is Douglas Carter Beane’s gun. This is Douglas Carter Beane’s foot. Ready, aim … The concept for this mondo crudo satire is molto buffo: a spoof of those cheesy shockumentaries that Italian filmmakers churned out in the early ’60s for the delectation of auds weary of repressive Cold War morality and longing for a taste of the bizarro. But spotty perfs, uneven sketch material and bonehead attempt to make modern auds feel guilty about their own voyeuristic urges undermine the smirky fun. With retooling and recasting (and packaged with its sleazy film inspiration, “Mondo Cane”), revue could travel as a novelty attraction for savvy urban auds with jaded tastes.
Lurid lobby posters of vintage schlock from the archives of the Italian film industry are enough to lure ticketholders into the theater, where grainy documentary footage of weird tribal rituals, foreign and domestic, flickers across a scrim.
When the scrim rolls up, we’re in a seedy movie theater where Siobhan Mahoney, Caroline Rhea and Miriam Shor, in movie-director trenchcoats and sunglasses from Gregory A. Gale’s well-shopped wardrobe of tasteless ’60s fashion fads, promise to show us the “beautifulness” and the “grotesqueness” of “the world of the dog.”
So far, the show has our attention, which it continues to hold right up to the point when the three performers leer at the aud, making it clear we are featured players in this “cavalcade of the repellent.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently phony about setting the show in a movie theater and pretending the audience is part of the action. But the conceit that was shockingly apt for “Cabaret” has been worked to death since then, and it’s needlessly confrontational here.
Browbeating “normal, average, ordinary” people for their own perverse behavior doesn’t even make sense in a contemporary culture that is not in the least oppressive, that in fact prides itself on perversity and has made voyeurism a staple of pop entertainment.
Which is not to say that Beane isn’t onto something when he sees parallels between the generation that swooned over Mondo movies and our own sensation-bent era — only that he hasn’t come up with an original or amusing take on the connection.
Show is on surer footing when it gets down to the business of parodying the bizarre subjects and prurient style of the Mondo aesthetic. Faithful to the hilarious pseudo-educational tone of the original movies, which fell somewhere between National Geographic ponderousness and Confidential Magazine salaciousness, the sketches are introduced by “condescending Anglocentric narration” delivered in the manner of George Sanders.
The three performers share these narrative chores and relish each assignment, whether it’s a trek to the mysterious Orient, “where every massage has a happy ending,” or a quick trip down South, where the Old White Men’s Women’s Auxiliary is meeting to compose “derogatory terms for every race, color, religion, sex and sexual orientation.”
Although Mondo directors always attached some point of cultural, scientific or sociological significance to their footage of the flesh-eating rats of Sumatra and the naked celebrants of African fertility rites, it’s doubtful they expected to be taken seriously.
Beane, however, makes a tedious point of exhorting us to embrace every culture, nationality, religion and lifestyle as “valid and splendid.” No wonder, then, that he falls on his face with heavy-handed material knocking socialites, trophy wives and other privileged white women for condescending to the huddled masses.
Beane hits his comic stride, though, whenever he stoops to the politically incorrect stereotyping that he forbids his characters. An Asian waitress (given a dangerous, seductive edge by Siobhan Mahoney) who takes her revenge on her “tall, round-eyed, freakish tall occidental” customers, a pair of African women giving fertility tips to a not-so-dumb virgin and three Dutch prostitutes who trade meatloaf recipes while contorting themselves into erotic sexual positions are roll-in-the-dirt funny, as are a trio of black drag queens working a dive in the meat-packing district of Manhattan.
When Beane indulges their nastier impulses and doesn’t make them pay for their sins, even his white ladies can get a laugh, like the preppy American girls who find themselves up for auction in an Arabian bazaar and are insulted by the low prices being offered.
The actors have to work too hard for their laughs, though, in Christopher Ashley’s (“Jeffrey”) production, which lacks both the farcical inventiveness and the bug-eyed, over-the-top energy that would level out the uneven comedy material and rescue the perfs from dead spots.
Miriam Shor (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) has an affinity for those snooty white ladies that Beane (“As Bees in Honey Drown”) grinds up for gunpowder and Caroline Rhea (“Sabrina, the Teenage Witch”) makes a priceless Dutch prostitute.
But both actors need help with their accents, and Rhea could use more direction in defining her less distinctive characters. Even Siobhan Mahoney (“A Hole in the Dark”), who can take an African virgin, a Dutch hooker and a homicidal cook of indeterminate Asian ethnicity to manic heights of demented perkiness, could dare more with the support of a stronger ensemble.