The comedies of Charles Busch (author of the immortal Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) are sexy, smart, and incredibly silly—easily three of the best things you can have together. Like wasabi-coated chocolates, they sting a bit, but have a sweet creamy center. And though contemporary comedy might have caught up with them in the risque department, Busch’s adoring parodies of old-time movie cliches mixed with Manhattan wit hold their own. Psycho Beach Party, now in production by Theatre Unchained, mashes up the teen surf comedies of the 60s like Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo with psychological thrillers like The Three Faces of Eve and Spellbound. Set in a universe of smooth-skinned teens negotiating simultaneously the turbulent waves of the Pacific Ocean and adolescent sexuality (a dangerous feat at best), it adds themes that the Motion Picture Board would never approve, like bondage, same-sex lust, prostitution, and the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.
It’s a surprisingly tricky show to pull off, since you need a cast that’s young, pretty, and savvy with comedy. Theater Unchained squeaks by on the strength of a few bright performances, plus Jimmy Dragolovich’s sure-handed direction that keeps the pace fast and the mood appropriately campy. Kristin Johnson carries the show ably as the spunky, virginal Chicklet, a girl whose innocence conceals a dark secret that causes the lights to flicker and her to transform into a raging persona called "Ann Bowman," whose ambition is to become "the dominatrix empress of the planet Earth." Charles Busch originally played the role himself, in drag, so Johnson has a big pair of flip-flops to fill, but she rises to the occasion, changing personalities with appropriate comic exaggeration. As her BFF Berndine, Lindsey Erin delivers a broad, committed, Saturday-Night-Live-level caricature (I loved the way she mispronounced “Sartre” as “Sayter” like a true autodidact).
But in a cast of strong women, Brianna Borouchoff steals the show with a bravura performance as Chicklet’s borderline pathological mother. Borouchoff must have studied Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest: when she first appears, in curlers and green facial mask, raving about ruining the veal scallopini, she’s a monstrous mommy to make any drag queen jealous. The men seem mostly content to phone in their performances, though A.J.Stibbe and Cuong Nguyen, as a pair of surfer dudes struggling with their mutual attraction, add a spark of life to the proceedings.
Though the cast is a bit on the raw side, Dragolovich draws decent performances from them, and knows how to put on a fun show. They meet the challenge of this deceptively silly play. And it’s a fine excuse to have a few vodka-and-cranberrys on a warm summer night.
Psycho Beach Party
by Charles Busch
July 18 -27
Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm
1024 South 5th Street
at Theatre Unchained or call (414) 391-7145.
20% off if purchased in advance
“Arrive to the show wearing your favorite swim-wear and receive a free drink”