Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa mined much of the same territory in Based on a Totally True Story in 2007, which was produced at the West End Players Guild early this year. In it, the agent, Mary Ellen, is a hard-driving, smokin’ hot force of nature taking advantage of a naïve young gay writer. In “Bees,” Alexa is a hard-driving, smokin’ hot force of nature taking advantage of a naïve young gay writer. The difference? Not much, especially considering Alverson plays both characters. I hope someday she gets a shot at Diane, a hard-driving, smokin’ hot force of nature, etc., in Beane’s later (and superior) The Little Dog Laughed. It would be a terrific hat trick for the magnetic Alverson (and, yes, she is smokin’ hot too).
So, while it may be tempting to think of “Bees” as derivative, it isn’t because it got there first. And while it has flaws, it provides a very funny night of theatre. The script is filled with both high and low culture allusions, from Proust, Cheever and Kandinsky to the Pet Shop Boys, with many references in between. Alexa proves a convincing, but unreliable narrator whose motto is “Fame without achievement is the safest bet I know.” Another oft-used saying of hers is the arcane, “as bees in honey drown.” Eventually, its meaning becomes stingingly clear.
In the beginning, Alverson speaks a bit too fast, but she soon settles down and becomes entirely believable playing a woman who is false in every way. She targets Evan Wyler (Martin Fox), a nom de plume, because he thought his original Jewish name wasn’t appropriate for the fame he hopes to achieve. We meet him as he’s posing for a magazine photo shoot with “Ronald” (Kevin Boehm) and his spacey assistant, Amber (Moynihan). When asked to remove his shirt, Evan demurs, but eventually, he produces the beefcake, and next thing we know, he’s having tea at the Hotel Paramount with the “record producer,” Alexa, who wants him to write a treatment of her life, which will become a screenplay. Since Evan still hasn’t seen any real money from his critically acclaimed novel and she offers him a thousand dollars a week in cash, he accepts.
Alexa dresses like Holly Golightly, talks like Tallulah Bankhead by way of Sally Bowles and acts like Auntie Mame. (There’s even an allusion to the latter when she takes Evan to get a suit, and he quotes Patrick Dennis, “Auntie Mame, long pants!”) Alexa also seems to share the Tao of Mame: “Life is a banquet and most of you poor bastards are starving to death.” Her personality is so strong that even Evan can’t resist her and falls in love. She professes her love for him too after telling him about the suicide of her husband, Michael Stabinsky, a rich older man she was forced to marry but learned to love. Her pet name for Evan is “Lamb,” which should have reminded the overly naive writer were lambs are often led.
But it’s all sunshine and lollipops until Evan is buying cigarettes and magazines for a planned trip to L.A. when he is attacked by Skunk (Peirick in mush-mouthed Nigel Tufel mode) and he seeks to find out why. The truth isn’t pretty, but Evan is driven to learn it. He talks to Morris Kaden (Boehm) a stereotypical Jewish record producer who Alexa had claimed to work for. He digs until he finds Illya Mannon and eventually Ginny Cameron (both Moynihan) and Bethany Vance (Anna Skidis) all of whom had or plan to have dealings with Alexa. Everything begins to come together when he finds Michael (Mike) Stabinsky (Peirick), a struggling artist who is alive and well and, not incidentally, cute and gay. Through all of these people and more, Evan gets the information he needs to find his way back to his craft, and ultimately to “divine” retribution.
The Abbey has its usual sound problems, so sometimes the words are a bit garbled, but generally, the actors handle the less-than-perfect acoustics well. Stray Dog’s trademark minimalistic set is especially effective here (L.D. Lawson) with a New York skyline over multiple levels of space, all of which is used. Tyler Duenow’s lighting design is excellent, especially when emotions run high and so do the lights. Multiple scene changes run smoothly.
Fox is a fine addition to the St. Louis theatre community, turning in his third excellent performance of the year as the sensitive Evan. The supporting cast also show versatility in multiple roles, and Boehm and Peirick stand out in their longest bits as Kaden and Stabinsky, respectively. Moynihan and Skidis have less to do, but they don’t ever fade into the scenery. Alverson plays the outrageous Alexa to the hilt, but is also able to run a gamut of emotions with seeming ease. A lot of the credit should go to director Gary Bell for his meticulous rendition of each character and scene, and there are a lot of both.
The biggest flaw here is the play’s length. As mentioned above, it is very funny, so it’s not that hard to sit through, but there are times when I wished they’d just get on with it. A clever device of overlapping dialogue culminating in the whole cast (except Alexa) talking at once like a Greek chorus is overused to the point where it’s grating. Act I would be improved by some judicious cutting; Act II has all the choral speaking but, since there is a mystery to solve, it doesn’t seem as tedious. And the fault is in the play itself: Bell keeps things moving along briskly.
As Bees in Honey Drown was first mounted in St. Louis at the Rep Studio in the 1998-99 season. I didn’t see it, but I can’t imagine it was much better than Stray Dog’s. So, I hope you’ll check it out because there’s no question that this show and these actors deserve your time, but just not quite so much of it.
As Bees in Honey Drown runs through Dec. 18 at Stray Dog Theatre in the Tower Grove Abbey. For ticket information, visit straydogtheatre.com.
Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT.