Who among us seekers of the good life would not be easily seduced by the likes of Alexa Vere de Vere, a glib and stylish grifter with a flair for flimflam? In the course of Douglas Carter Beane’s compulsively funny satire, “As Bees in Honey Drown,” a hungry and currently hot young fiction writer, Evan Wyler (Bo Foxworth), unwittingly falls victim to the ingenuously hot-to-scam Alexa. In an artificial world peopled and prescribed by manufactured personas and advertised illusions, a guileless newcomer meets a sophisticated phony and the fun begins.
As portrayed with an alluring, wacky abandon by J. Smith-Cameron, Alexa is a predator of undeniable charm who has, through study and dedicated late-night TV watching, made herself over into a hilarious, if slightly scary, synthesis of every movie star who ever shredded the silver screen. Patterning her speech and her once-drab personality after such formidable icons as Rosalind Russell, Liza Minnelli, Audrey Hepburn, and Tallulah Bankhead (as far as I could keep up), Alexa has become a self-made image of success and power Å and opportunism. However scary to imagine this hit-and-run creature, it is Cameron-Smith’s brilliantly idiosyncratic and vibrant performance that propels the schematic plot. This is all as it should be under the driving, no stops allowed, direction of Mark Brokaw (his direction also brought extraordinary tension to How I Learned to Drive).
Even as Beane’s plot consigns itself to the predictable and purposefully preposterous, there is the constant rush of flippant dialogue to keep the play from flagging. Not that we aren’t held spellbound by Alexa, as she succeeds in not only getting the gay Evan into a credit card nightmare, but also into her bed. Fast-talking her way into Evan’s life with the proposal that he write the screenplay for her biography, Alexa promises him the world. This is the line, we discover, that has been her entree to secure the trust of countless other hopefuls who now look back, but not with quite as much anger as we might suppose. The naive, starry-eyed Evan is buoyed by Foxworth’s frantic and always humorous performance, one that allows us to believe that he has no trouble falling in love with Auntie Mame, Holly Go-Lightly, and Sally Bowles all rolled into one spectacular star.
Not quite as hopelessly silly a charade as at first meets the ears and the eyes, “As Bees in Honey Drown” becomes increasingly sharp and illuminating as Evan takes on a personal search and an investigation of the woman who done him in. Ironically, we find among Alexa’s trendy town collection of victims, some who wouldn’t trade in their experience for anything. Standout is T. Scott Cunningham as the sadder but wiser artist who originally abetted Alexa in her conquests. Within designer Allen Moyer’s modestly high-tech settings, Jeffrey Hayenga, Amy Ryan, and Sandra Daley provide a frothy collection of New Yorkers in various stages of superficial serendipity, that includes a disgruntled rock star, a sleazy photographer, and a successful producer.
Chalk up this play as another winner for the Drama Dept. This is the young company that made its auspicious debut with Tennessee Williams’ The Kingdom of Earth, and followed with George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner’s 1929 comedy, June Moon, that is opening this week at McCarter Theater. Mark Nelson, now directing at McCarter (see page 44), was a member of the original supporting cast of “As Bees in Honey Drown” . This review is based on its performance after it moved from that original venue at Greenwich House.
“As Bees in Honey Drown,” Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, 212-239-6200.