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We have often walked down this street before, but never quite like this.
Pigmaleon, a giddily “all-male”-in-spirit riff on Shaw’s Pygmalion produced by the Theater Alliance and the Actors’ Theatre of Washington, is a briskly amusing, thoroughly unexpected theatrical charmer. Before seeing it, I’d have guessed that any attempt to transform Edwardian London into gay D.C. would shred the work’s fabric and turn its characters into caricatures. But although the humor in Pigmaleon is often broad and campy, Shaw’s plot outline has been intelligently reconsidered by Jeff Keenan and Sam Schwartz Jr. (who died unexpectedly in February), who found nifty parallels for the class distinctions and social presumption Shaw delighted in sending up.
Pigmaleon’s Henry Higgins (Louis Cupp) is still a quasi-asexual linguist and snob, but rather than lamenting the cockney vowels of a flower-selling ragamuffin in Covent Garden, he now finds himself appalled by the West Virginia drawl of a homeless rose-hawker at JR.’s. This lad’s name is Elijah Doolittle (“Folks calls me Eli”), and he’s scruffy, gay, and barely literate. He’s been living under Key Bridge long enough that there’s a definite air about him.
Still, his comebacks to Higgins’ insults suggest that there’s intelligence under the grime. Enough so that Higgins’ buddy—pre-op transsexual Kate (nee Carl) Pickering (J.L. Phillips)—goads the linguist with a challenge: Can he teach Eli “the difference between the pronouns ‘them thar’ and ‘those’…and pass him off as A-list by the HRC banquet?” Higgins claims he can, and before you can say “the rain in Spain,” Eli is being introduced to the world of Armani and weight training, and drilled on how to pronounce “venti half-caff, double skimmed cap” in a way that won’t raise eyebrows at a Dupont Starbucks.
His transformation is both credible and a hoot as chronicled at the Clark Street Playhouse. With beard, long hair, and a persuasively padded beer belly, Carlos Bustamante looks pretty unredeemable at the outset, but his Eli cleans up so nicely that on one re-entrance—cleanshaven and fresh from Higgins’ shower—he prompted an appreciative sigh from the mostly male crowd on opening night. Once he tones up and gets a haircut, he’s such a certifiable hunk that it’s easy to understand what layabout trust-funder Fred Hill (Steven Scott Mazzola) sees in him.
That said, Eli possesses a rural mind-set that gay urban tutoring doesn’t entirely undo, as Higgins discovers when he takes Eli to visit “Mother.” Played as a bitch goddess by Scott Stanley in upper-crusty drag, this doyennish mother hen rules Georgetown’s gay social circuit with martini in hand and rejoinder at the ready (“A clutch of homosexuals?…Is that what you call us?…A quagmire of queens?…A pride of pansies?…I’ll have to ask Safire”). Even she, though, is left speechless when Eli holds forth on hog-gutting during a cocktail conversation that’s supposed to be limited to the weather and everyone’s health.
I’ll let you discover the rest of the parallels for yourself, because much of the evening’s fun lies in figuring out how the authors will finesse plot points that don’t seem likely to translate well to either this century or this side of the Atlantic. Some sequences Schwartz and Keenan have simply decided to jettison (there’s no Alfred Doolittle, for instance), others they’ve freshly invented (Freddy has S&M fantasies and a fully equipped dungeon), but for the most part, the script’s outline remains that of Shaw’s original. The old socialist probably wouldn’t have liked the Schwartz-Keenan ending any better than the Lerner-Loewe one, but it’s easy to imagine him chuckling at Higgins’ presumption in trying to teach Eli the joys of “entitlement: the simple American fact that I matter because of the air I breathe.”
The performances are all pretty much on the mark, and Keenan’s staging is clever both visually (in what he does with just a few sticks of furniture, effectively lit by Marianne Meadows) and in terms of comic timing. Keenan’s the guy who directed the all-male Importance of Being Earnest at the Source Theatre last year, so he knows something about redefining classics, even when he’s just reimagining rather than rewriting them. Pigmaleon strikes me as a more successful project than Earnest in most respects, though it’s not entirely realizing its potential on Clark Street. The script could use pruning, and if the last couple of scenes are to have the resonance for which the authors clearly aimed, the director and Cupp need to find ways to make Higgins a more sympathetic snot than he is at present. Still, there’s no denying that the Actors’ Theatre of Washington—as is getting to be its habit of late—has a hit on its hands.
So does the Studio Theatre, in the certifiably fabulous Lypsinka! The Boxed Set, a theatrical novelty that combines all the perks of diva worshipping and channel surfing.
The theater has been transformed into a sort of bubble-gum lounge—pink on pink, with a disco ball twirling above a sea of inflatable armchairs and huge projected lips on a glittery curtain. The music is ’50s and ’60s power pop, the mood giddy.
Enter Lypsinka, an astonishing creature in a wraparound top and shimmering pleated skirt, eyelids weighed down by pounds of mascara, an auburn tsunami shellacked into place atop her head. Every inch of her, except that hair, is constantly in motion—her legs tapping out a tattoo, her fingers fluttering so furiously she sometimes stares at them in a mix of disbelief and horror.
Initially her voice is Doris Day’s, but within a few moments she seems to be channeling every diva who ever entered a recording studio. Let a phone ring and she’s suddenly Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, or Joan Crawford…not to mention Faye Dunaway doing Joan Crawford. Strike up a band and she’s Bassey, Garland, Simone, Horne, and on and on.
John Epperson is Lypsinka, right down to the fake fingernails and Nike-swoosh eyebrows. This is the umpteenth show he’s created for the determinedly larger-than-life creature—which means there must be gay icons and campy film moments he does not tap into here, though I can’t think of many. The show is essentially an hourlong, fiercely inventive collage of recordings and sound effects, lip-synched by Epperson with gestures that are choreographed to within an inch of their lives, each more excessive than the last. The lightning-quick changes of mood, the triple-takes, the flirtatious smiles, the appalled grimaces are all pretty hilarious. And if the numbers are themselves idiotic—a gin-soaked “Twelve Days of Christmas,” a manic-depressive “Tea for Two”—so much the better. Hell, the five-minute curtain call, milked for all it’s worth and then some, is very nearly worth the price of admission all by itself. The lady’s a one-woman mob scene. A riot of glamour. And in town for just one more week. CP