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Wig Out!

Wig Out!" is a fierce drag show, but it's wobbly theater. Set in the world of drag houses, where gay and transgender folks compete for trophies at elaborate balls, the show sizzles with style, turning out better production numbers than many Broadway musicals.

Wig Out!” is a fierce drag show, but it’s wobbly theater. Set in the world of drag houses, where gay and transgender folks compete for trophies at elaborate balls, the show sizzles with style, turning out better production numbers than many Broadway musicals. However, since playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Tina Landau don’t give the spectacle a coherent story, the cast of dressed-up divas has no place to go.

But oh, are they dressed up. Costumer Toni-Leslie James and hair, wig and makeup designer Wendy Parson work wonders with an Off Broadway budget, nailing the glamour and power that make drag houses a refuge for gay urban youth. When Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham), legendary Mother of the House of Light, tears across the stage in a ruffled designer skirt, or when Ms. Nina (Clifton Oliver), the House of Light’s First Child, croons a hymn in a slinky evening gown, they are ambassadors of style.

James Schuette’s set deepens the fantasy. On the literal level, it suggests the stage for a drag ball, with patrons seated on both sides of a catwalk and two dressing rooms hovering on platforms above the crowd. Black staircases and metal scaffolding imply we’re in a warehouse, which makes sense for an underground show.

But a boatload of disco balls pushes us past reality. One orb looks as if it’s exploding on the backstage wall, spraying shards out of its cracked hull, and a solar system of glittering balls hangs behind a translucent curtain stage left. Those disco balls tell us drag has more authority in the play than everyday life. They indicate that the characters float just above realism, made mythic when they slip into drag.

Sometimes the symbols work. The plot revolves around a last-minute ball, where the House of Light must compete against the evil House of Di’Abolique. Whenever the houses gather, they seem otherworldly. Landau stages kinetic, choreographed entrances for “family members,” backed by thumping music and ending with magnificent tableaux. When the actual ball arrives in act two, and everyone fights fashionable war, several numbers are bigger and shinier than reality.

As Serena, Mother of the House of Di’Abolique, Daniel T. Booth struts like a tweaked-out goddess, wearing futuristic headgear, lip-synching to house tracks and bellowing at the audience to appreciate her glory. The professional training of Booth’s drag career (as Sweetie) is a clear asset.

But while Serena is a clear force of nature, McCraney implies all his characters are supernatural. There are house members named Deity (Glenn Davis) and Loki (Sean Patrick Doyle), and narration comes from a trio of girl-group singers (actual women) dubbed the Fates 3. When the ladies comment on the show by belting pop songs, they’re like a Greek chorus via MTV.

There’s interesting irony in Lucian (Erik King), whose name means light and who is Father of the House of Light, but who rolls through the play like a cloud. King (from Showtime’s “Dexter”) makes him cruelly seductive, using the same sexy voice to woo his charges and to intimidate them. And though he claims to care for his house, he deceives them to protect his dominance.

But that’s all Lucian does. McCraney reduces his arc to generic basics — gloat, betray, repent — and he does the same to every other plotline. For instance, we know Ms. Nina loves Eric (Andre Holland), a boy she met on the subway, but we barely know why. Because they’re sketchily drawn, the couple’s emotional confrontations feel phony and unearned.

More problematic, McCraney never clarifies why the balls and the houses really matter. Rey-Rey may be devastated when she stumbles on the runway, but other than a trophy, we don’t know what she stands to lose.

That’s too bad because McCraney (“The Brothers Size”) has obvious ambition. He glances at meaty issues like homophobia in minority communities and the necessity of unconventional families, but name-checking an idea isn’t the same as developing it.

Landau generalizes the production by keeping her actors in constant motion. As they run up staircases and stomp across platforms, thesps rarely have time to convey personality or suggest physical relationships with fellow cast members. Auds are left with a sensory assault, absorbing images that are wild and beautiful, but hollow.

Wig Out!

Vineyard Theater; 129 seats; $55 top

  • Production: A Vineyard Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Tina Landau.
  • Crew: Sets, James Schuette; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Robert Kaplowitz; hair, wigs and makeup, Wendy Parson; production stage manager, Barbara Reo. Opened Sept. 30, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 26. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: Lucian - Erik King Rey-Rey - Nathan Lee Graham Ms. Nina (Wilson) - Clifton Oliver Venus - Joshua Cruz Deity - Glenn Davis Serena - Daniel T. Booth Loki - Sean Patrick Doyle Eric - Andre Holland The Fates 3 - Rebecca Naomi Jones, Angela Grovey, McKenzie Frye
  • Music By: