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The sting of success 

by Michael Bowen


Start with a couple of jokes. Think of them as guides to the sensibilities of the current production at the Civic's Studio Theatre. If you grin over these -- or laugh out loud -- you'll like the show.


In the first, Alexa, the central femme fatale character, is attempting to impress a young writer, who has just revealed that he's gay: "You would love [England]. Everybody is gay. Truly. When you say 'the queen,' you have to specify."


Second joke. The writer is stupefied by just how far Alexa's seduction of him has gone. He laments to an acquaintance, "You don't understand. I'm gay, and I slept with her." To which the other man replies, "What do you want, frequent flyer miles?"


The irresistibility of even Warhol-style 15-minute fame is the subject of Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown. The bees of the title are the wannabe famous, those glitzy young folks whom the script pins down as "sub-lebrities." The play focuses on a confidence woman who promises fame, and on how willingly many of us would play her game. When it comes to being famous, we all want to be stroked, tricked, seduced.


The seductress in Beane's satire is Alexa Vere de Vere, a character with a past right out of Danielle Steele. And that name! It promises honor and verity, truth piled high on truth -- and delivers just the reverse. She scours trendy magazines for the names of hottest new stars in the arts and then, with calculated flamboyance, lures them with promises of wealth and celebrity. All they need to do, supposedly, is help her write or film her biography, which, as she says, "is too enchanting even for me."


Her life story is too marvelous because it's fabricated. Part of the fun in watching Bees flit about lies in trying to discern the tricks of this accomplished con woman's trade. She has a talent for spinning the confections of fantasy. For example, she seduces Evan Wyler (Patrick Walrath), the young writer, by buying him new outfits and dazzling him (and us) with a wonderful description of careless excess riches: "Lamb, my dearest lamb. You will buy other suits. You will buy hundreds, nay thousands of suits. You will buy suits in Italy, have them altered and shipped back to America. And they will sit in closets and you will never get to them and you will hand them down to assistants or housekeepers. This is the world that lies ahead for you."


Actually, what lies ahead for Evan is being snookered. As the con artist, Alexa carries the play, and it's a tricky part: overplayed, she could easily become Cruella De Vil. As played by Tami Grady Rotchford, however, this version of Alexa could afford to be even more flamboyant. A good example occurs in the first scene between the seductress and her target. Alexa engages in a self-absorbed random non-stop monologue all about her own pursuits. To which Evan has to ask, "Before you speak these sentences, do you ever consider diagramming them?" His line doesn't make sense unless Alexa's monologue has been delivered in a rush of impressive but scattershot pop culture references. Alexa, at least in this scene, has to blather in overdrive. Rotchford tries to impress rather than amaze, and as a result, she seems restrained instead of self-dramatizing. Ideally, Alexa nearly always seizes an opportunity to preen.


Still, director Ann Russell rightly remarks that Alexa mustn't become a caricature. If she's two-dimensional only, we'll miss the seriousness of the scene in which she recounts a death and the desperation her character evinces in the second act. If she's over the top right from the start, there will be, as actors say, nowhere for her to go. In order to dupe Evan, after all, she needs to remain within the realm of the convincing. Getting all Tallulah Bankhead robs the con game of its plausibility.


She affects not to be concerned with mundane details: What difference does it make that bills need to be paid? Why bother with trivialities like cash and credit cards? Those are matters for the accountants. Ostensible carelessness about money is the heart of her scam.


Evan, her victim, is a first-time novelist on the cusp on fame. He's just changed his name from Eric Wollenstein and posed shirtless for one of those glossy gossip magazines.


Eric/Evan recalls the Romantic poet who said of his first widespread success, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Same for Evan, and for his real-life counterpart: Walrath is himself a rookie from the school of acting at the University of Montana. In the early stages of the comedy, he adeptly plays the wide-eyed beginning novelist who can scarcely believe his good fortune.


John Milton defined fame, famously, "as that last refuge of noble mind." He meant that even virtuous people who have conquered the temptations of money, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll still crave fame. That little inner flame of egotism can never be fully extinguished. Beane's comedy skewers our rage for fame, and Rotchford portrays a formidable femme fatale. In this production, the script is better than the performance. But the performance realizes plenty of Beane's trenchant social commentary, enough to make it worth your while to take in the show.


Alexa Vere de Vere certainly wants to take you in. Then she'll take you for everything you've got.

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