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A vividly theatrical, high-heeled, pantsuited, satin-and-sequins vision in purple, orange, and gold, Kiki is first spotlit at the Source Theatre facing away from the audience. Give the gal credit—she knows her best angle.
Seen from the rear, with faithful accompanist Herb vamping away at a nearby piano, this willfully fabulous creature is a cruise-ship diva writ large. The flicking of that mane of teased hair, the flinging in all directions of braceleted wrists, the purring of a boozily effusive “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen” when she’s greeted with lukewarm applause—all have the practiced professionalism and faux sincerity of Eydie Gorme in her prime.
Well, maybe just a tad past her prime. When Kiki (Justin Bond) faces front, a bit of strain shows through the mascara and rouge. Creases deep as canyons frame the chanteuse’s eyes and mouth, her nostrils flare alarmingly, and her smile is hard and too toothy by half. Imagine a lounge act featuring Marilyn Manson’s mom and you’ve about got the picture.
Kiki & Herb in Pardon Our Appearance, the uproarious and faintly frightening train wreck of a drag cabaret that Woolly Mammoth has imported to D.C. for one too-short month, has much in common with a couple of other popular cross-dressed entertainments. Like the folks in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, K&H use the stage as a confessional, revealing more of their personal lives (“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had some terrible gas in my life”) than any fan in his right mind would ever want to know. Their taste in music is a bit softer than Hedwig’s, however, running to rock standards by the likes of David Bowie and Patti Smith. And the vocal stylings they favor are closer to those championed by Lypsinka—up-tempo lullabies and achy ballads, rendered with the brass and emotional overkill trademarked by the divas who held sway a generation or so ago.
There’s a bit of a disconnect, obviously, between interpretation and material. I’d be hard-pressed to say which of K&H’s cabaret renditions feels farthest out there—the acted-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life-while-balanced-precariously-on-a-stool “Space Oddity,” the torchier-than-thou crooning of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” or the fiercely emoted “Motherfuckers,” with which this aging diva illustrates her contention that the rappers in Wu-Tang are really folkies at heart. Also eye-opening is the unnervingly bouncy version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which the duo uses as a finale.
Between ditties, Kiki fishes hidden whisky glasses from potted plants on the set and bravely wings her way through the sort of interstitial banter that most divas are cagey enough to script. Nearly everything she says is as appalling as it is funny, including a few risky quips about the sniper who’s been terrorizing her suburban patrons of late. Depressing anecdotes about her “two surviving children”—aged 54 and 17—bump up against cheery childhood memories of the mental institution where she and Herb first became codependent and reminiscences about the duo’s singular claims to musical fame. Kiki and Herb have long been, she declares proudly, “secret weapons in the arsenal against terrorism,” their recordings having been blared by U.S. forces into the lairs of Latin American dictators, who quickly surrendered. Not being a fan of George W.’s accomplishments (“The women of Afghanistan are now free to take off their burkas so the men of Afghanistan can see who they’re raping”), she’d be just delighted to have their music used to similar effect at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
I’m neglecting Herb (Kenny Mellman), and I really shouldn’t. As unique as Kiki’s voice, which ranges slightly upward from a raspy baritone, will sound to most ears, the lady’s idiosyncratic interpretations of rock classics, and even her between-songs small talk, wouldn’t register with half so much campy force if they weren’t framed, ornamented, and propelled by Herb’s ivory-pounding antics and overwrought background vocals. This painfully shy but feverishly devoted accompanist is almost alarmingly in sync with his partner, sobbing along with the songs she elects to turn into torchy anthems, providing the bounce for her chirpier flights of musical fancy. No matter how far afield she wanders, he’s right there with her, scoring every tottering step she takes. They’re special, these two. You’ll want to catch them while you can.
Playwright William Inge was once considered the likeliest heir to Tennessee Williams as a poet of the lonely, alcoholic, and sexually obsessed—which adds a bit of historical interest to the current juxtaposition of the two dramatists’ first New York hits, Come Back, Little Sheba and The Glass Menagerie, at Arlington’s Clark Street Playhouse. Alas, the comparison doesn’t work to the benefit of Inge, whose grasp of psychology appears decidedly elementary in the hokey Sheba co-produced by the Fountainhead and Keegan Theatres.
Inge’s story concerns a crisis in the marriage of a recovering alcoholic (Jim Jorgensen) and his lonely, frowzy, daydreaming wife (Charlotte Akin). She calls him Daddy, he calls her Baby, and they’d both be bored out of their skulls if not for the presence in their household of a comely teenage boarder named Marie (Jennifer A. Driscoll). To Daddy’s dismay—and Baby’s nervous delight—Marie is having a fling with a local jock named Turk (Sam Elmore) while waiting for a more stable boyfriend back home to propose. This situation is reminiscent enough of the one surrounding her hosts’ sudden marriage some 20 years earlier that before any of the subsidiary characters can say, “Get a life,” Daddy’s eyeing the liquor bottle in the cabinet and Baby’s spring-cleaning with a vengeance.
Steven Carpenter’s obvious and overly rushed staging doesn’t do the play any favors, nor does the mostly melodramatic playing of the evening’s cast. Only Driscoll makes her role seem more than two-dimensional, and unfortunately, that doesn’t help matters much, because Marie is more catalyst than character. From all appearances, Sheba (a puppy who disappeared some weeks before the play begins) is lucky to have gotten away. CP