Here’s a curious theatrical recipe you could try: Start with one single, middle-aged, work-at-home mom who’s a professional dominatrix. Add an annoying obsessive-compulsive cleaning lady, an elderly cross-dressing male client, two maladjusted daughters (can you blame them?) and one young Vietnamese Elvis impersonator. Shake vigorously and serve. As created by British playwright Charlotte Jones (“Humble Boy”), the result is a strange concoction that’s far too heavy on the condiments.
OK, enough with the metaphor. What we have in “Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis,” making its U.S. debut at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, is an overreaching comedy that suffers from at least one lunatic too many.
The first hint of excess comes early in the production — the opening scene, actually — when the cleaning lady reports for duty, revealing an abnormal penchant for fives, as in five repeated knocks at the door, and five of everything else, ad nauseam.
It’s the madam’s 40th birthday, and when her gentleman client is back in street clothes and out of his French maid costume, he decides to throw a party. He has hired an Elvis impersonator for entertainment, but the guy would be less than convincing even if he did know the lyrics.
But there’s more here than mere chuckles. Providing a narrative of sorts is a precocious and somewhat mentally challenged young daughter. She has pitched a tent on the patio of the Bolton, England, house where she escapes the tawdry doings to be alone with her thoughts, which often are about her missing older sister, who her mother claims is dead. But the sister returns in the second act to voice her revulsion at the woman’s occupation and help bring things to a melodramatic close.
Granted, the darkish comedy, penned in 1999, has its sobering messages, such as how we should all love misfits because they, too, have something to offer. But stripped of its overwritten oddities, it doesn’t blaze any trails on this theme.
Woolly’s production, staged by John Vreeke, works hard to emphasize both the silliness and the soul of “Elvis” as it copes with Jones’ mixed messages. But the play has other flaws, including a paucity of genuine wit and flagrantly contrived excuses for characters to exit the stage when not needed.
Its biggest lift comes from the talented Kimberly Gilbert as the young daughter, a figure-skating enthusiast who copes with the misbehaving adults even as she ribs them about their eccentricities.
Beth Hylton does her best to bring credibility to the reckless parent who suddenly decides it’s time to acquire maturity. Similarly, Woolly stalwart Sarah Marshall strives to balance depth and comic relief in the pitiful cleaning lady.
As the apprentice Elvis impersonator suffering the gig of his nightmares, Tony Nam rolls amiably with the punches.
One undisputed highlight is Dan Conway’s eye-catching set, a two-level house with a useful alcove down front, providing ample room for Elvis to romp as well as the handy patio for the daughter’s tent.