There once was a magical time when everything a celebrity said was so important the words had to be declaimed in a quasi-British accent and with at least one hand lifted to the heavens for emphasis. There once was a mythical place where a woman wore only the finest gowns, even when gardening, and a man wore Italian trousers so tight you could pinpoint the exact moment his interest was aroused. There once was a psychedelic world in which a sexually confused young man and his nubile coed sister could dose their mother with LSD, and it wasn't even the strangest thing to happen that night.
Welcome to the world of Die! Mommie! Die! a chiaroscuro realm just down the street from Knots Landing and beyond Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Sanity is optional, good taste is completely absent and hambone acting is the lingua franca. It's a crass, hilarious romp that gets better as it gets worse. And the wardrobes are divine.
Charles Busch's rhapsodic skewering of the 1960s, B-minus style of women's movie is set in the garish home of über-producer Sol Sussmann (William Ledbetter) and his wife Angela Arden (Landon Shaw), a faded pop singer contemplating a comeback. Arden has a boyfriend on the side, two troubled kids and a terrible, terrible secret, the discovery of which is the plot of the play. Stray Dog Theatre and director Gary F. Bell ride this show hard and puts it away wet, if you'll allow that tawdry imagery, wringing maximum laughs from the campy dialogue and ludicrous plot twists. Die! is gloriously unrepentant in its raunchiness, and Bell has encouraged his cast to wallow in it.
Shaw is a late replacement for actor Thom Crain, who bowed out due to illness, and despite a very enthusiastic performance, the stand-in was understandably a touch uneven on opening night. To his credit, Shaw was much stronger and more confident in the second act, and should continue to improve.
It would be hard for Ledbetter to improve his take on Sol, however. He plays the part with Sinatra-like bravado, an old lion of a producer who sees himself as a socially conscious auteur unaware of the dreck he makes; this is the man who wanted to make a Billie Holiday biopic with Elizabeth Taylor as Lady Day. Ledbetter makes this egotist both funny and likable, imbuing him with a reptilian charm.
Meg Rodd plays daughter Edith with equal passion. Always garbed in either sparkles or metallic fabric, Edith is conniving and cruel to her mother and inappropriately loving to her father. Rodd has struck the perfect tone for this spoiled, sexpot heiress, a dangerous minx who'll stop at nothing to ruin her mother's life.
Some of Rodd's best work is done with Roger Erb, who plays smarmy lothario Tony Parker, Angela's boy toy. Tony, a failing actor himself, never points when he can thrust, has a slimy mastery of single entendre and keeps one hand close to his sword at all times, if you know what I mean. Tony's seduction of Edith is a grease fire of venality, both of them succumbing to themselves. Erb's performance is all the more remarkable when Tony demonstrates his acting prowess, allowing his below-the-belt stiffness to run rampant. As broad as the comedy is, Erb's is a nuanced performance that's far more difficult than he makes it seem.
Stray Dog has mounted Mommie! (I do apologize, but I can't help myself) as a tonic to the apparently mandatory Christmas cheer, and yet Angela Arden's tale of misery and murder is a testament to the power of the human spirit that's not all that dissimilar to It's a Wonderful Life. It's a twisted and dirty testament where people shout "cocksucker" instead of "I love you," but doesn't love mean never having to say you're sorry? No? All right then, go see something else. Cocksucker!