Erasmus Fenn is a stage magician turned novelist turned playwright, whose first play, Drop Dead Perfect, has been brought to Theatre at St. Clement’s off Broadway, through the combined auspices of the Peccadillo Theater Company and the Penguin Rep Theatre. Producer Morton Wolkowitz is associated as Producer as well.
I tell you all this, for the mixing and matching of managements is not surprising, as the play that’s come out of it all is a prime example of a playwright working in a new medium, using bits and pieces of all he’s experienced to create something new —- a satirical comical dramatic parody of a wide variety of films noir and Bob Hope comedy mysteries.
Director Joe Brancato was attracted to it because it struck him as a delicious parody of a decades old story about a single middle-aged woman whose penchant for perfection got way out of hand. In presenting the play with a marvelous cast of actors who know how to play pastiche, all of these people have come up with a delightful summer treat for anyone in the mood for merry mirth, and for anyone who doesn’t mind checking logic in the cloak room on entering the theatre.
For starters, the producers and director Brancato have wisely employed Everett Quinton, the gifted actor, director and sometime playwright, who with his partner Charles Ludlam, regaled us with comic gems like The Mystery of Irma Vep, Bluebeard, Exquisite Torture, Turds in Hell, and Der Ring Gott Farblonjet to name a few.
Most of these productions were on in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, so it’s refreshing to have Mr. Quinton back on the boards as Idris Seabright, a wealthy matron living in a mansion on one of the Florida keys. The moon through the transom window in the living room is always crescent, the stars are always bright except when it rains. Idris Seabright is a control freak who celebrates stillness to the point where she can only paint objects that don’t move. If on occasion, she’s interested in a live animal as subject, she has no problem in killing it to assure stillness during the sittings. As the play progresses, we realize she is coming closer to the substitution of people for flora and fauna.
Idris has played Mother to a young lady called Vivien, and in time we will learn how Vivien, who believes herself to be Idris’ adopted daughter, learns the truth about who she really is. Into their lives comes Ricardo, a stranger from Cuba, who is quickly revealed to be Idris’ nephew, her sister’s son. There is also an attorney who is a confidante of Idris’ , a stalwart who must always be available, as Idris has changes of heart about who shall be the beneficiary in her will. He wants to marry Vivien.
Mr. Quinton’s approach to his performance as Idris is highly original. He begins with a naturalistic reading of the lines; he is simply a stylish woman who seems just a tad eccentric, but certainly not one we would consider insane. In time, he will take bits from the performances of tough love mother Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce”, mean and rotten Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” (including a trace of Ms. Stanwyck’s Brooklyn accent left over from her early days as Ruby Stevens in Burlesque,) and Bette Davis in just about anything, and he will raise the intensity in those bits by some 400%. By so doing, he’s got us laughing out loud through most of the 90 minutes it takes to tell Idris’ story.
I’d never seen Quinton before, and he is unique. He’s larger than Charles Busch, less campy than Charles Pierce, less bovine than Harvey Fierstein, and for my taste, funnier than all of them put together.
Though Mr. Fenn’s play lacks much genuine wit, it does provide setups in its very intricate plotting for all four actors (five really, one of them doubles in two roles) are adept at this sort of highly stylized playing. Vivien for example is played by Jason Edward Cook, clearly a male, but if you didn’t check the program, you’d bet your bippy he was someone named Jane or June or Janet. Michael Keyloun, who narrates the play, and doubles as the attorney, knows how to get a laugh by the movement of his eyeballs. Prim and proper, he’s just the right foil for Everett Quinn’s Idris. And Jason Cruz as Ricardo from Cuba is a delight as the man who has something to offer everyone — for a price.
I’d have loved a polish done by an Oscar Wilde, but I did admire the constant surprises in the story line. There is lots of fun up there on the tidy set designed by James Fenton, though the laughs come more from the performances than from the text. But on a balmy summer night, I found Drop Dead Perfect a refreshing tonic.
Drop Dead Perfect is onstage thru August 10, 2014 at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.