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Noel Coward’s famous admonishment to Mrs. Worthington is just about the only showbiz cliché that escapes unmolested in Ruthless, an affectionately outrageous musical sendup of the greasepainted elite now being staged with much style (if not complete success) by the newly invigorated Source Theatre Company. Why the show’s creators didn’t include it I can’t imagine: True, Coward’s plea was addressed to the mother of a less-than-gifted urchin, but the key lyric would have been salutary advice for Ruthless’s Judy Denmark—who finds, after her undeniably talented 8-year-old has felt the limelight’s glare, that the brat’s brand of blond ambition makes Madonna look like a saint.

The question of whether to let little Tina pursue the muse arises when the ungracefully aging diva Sylvia St. Croix turns up at the Denmarks’ picture-perfect suburban ranch, having caught the tap-dancing third-grader’s performance while visiting a friend at the Rolling Hills Twilight Home for the Elderly. Sylvia’s the sort of woman who wears her rings over her gloves (and wears her gloves day and night), and she means to make the ringleted Miss Denmark a star. “I work with specially gifted children,” she says. “I think little Tina here can be big.” This being camp melodrama, Sylvia’s real motivations and true identity won’t be revealed until much later, though you’ll have guessed them long before intermission, along with the truth about Judy’s parentage and the source of Tina’s talent.

To be fair, Judy does have a doubt or two about whether it’s wise to let Tina get sucked into the tawdry world of the theater: “Show people are doomed,” she worries, “doomed to a life of drugs, pills, and heavy meals late at night.” Shouldn’t her precious darling have a chance at a normal childhood?

“I’ve had a normal childhood,” the little beast replies. “Now it’s time to move on.” She does, to a rigged audition for the school play—Pippi in Tahiti—and when she doesn’t land the lead, she settles for understudy and then arranges a Phantom of the Opera moment for the interloper. Promising, yes? Grasping, climbing, back-stabbing divas are always fun to root for; there are reasons we worship Patti LuPone.

But opening night is no triumph for Tina: In short order, she’s panned by her waspish theater-critic grandmother, convicted of offing her classmate, and packed off to reform school, while mom Judy, wise now to her own nature—which is naturally no less cutthroat than Tina’s—heads for Broadway and stardom. And that’s only the first act.

The second act is similarly twisty, and the yuks are sprinkled liberally throughout both: As it lurches drunkenly toward its corpse-strewn conclusion, Ruthless gleefully spoofs pushy stage mothers, evil reviewers, narcissistic Great Stars, lurid showbiz bios, dictatorial directors, and show-stopping 11 o’clock numbers, swinging broadly at a series of big targets and scoring laughs with coy references to shows like Gypsy, Company, and Evita. (And let’s not forget the walking, talking homage to All About Eve—or should I say Applause?)

Source has a suitably demented Sylvia in Christopher Borg, who moves like Cruella DeVil, declaims lines like a bargain-basement Norma Desmond, and sings like the gin-soaked love child of Tallulah Bankhead and Hermione Gingold; if the admirable efforts of Deborah Benner and Sasha Wexler (as Judy and Tina) can’t keep him from stealing focus—well, what actress has ever been able to upstage a drag queen? Borg’s only real competition comes from the irrepressible Jane Pesci-Townsend, whose glass-etching soprano is perfect for a number titled “I Hate Musicals,” and Katie Barrett (doubling as Tina’s neurotic third-grade teacher Miss Thorn and a nosy reporter), who nearly steals the first act dead away with a piercingly nasal ditty that imparts, among other lessons, the news that “Life is a bitch, and it starts in third graaaaaaaade!”

It looks great, too. On what one assumes is the usual minuscule Source budget, a dynamite design team has built a production that drips with high-camp style, from Sylvia’s ostrich-feather hat and Judy’s perma-helmet hairdo down to the curvy little black book that Barrett’s magazine snoop scribbles her notes in. The harlequin geometries of Lou Stancari’s lime-sherbet set fairly scream “parody,” and Annie Kennedy’s costumes, especially for Sylvia and Miss Thorn, are simply a scream. (And look closely at Tina’s reform-school uniform: Anyone for a chorus of “Who Am I?”)

But for all its wicked charms, Ruthless isn’t quite delicious enough to justify two-and-a-half hours. David Hilder’s direction is a trifle broad, as are one or two performances, and Dan Covey’s lighting is a little more awkward and aggressive than might be ideal, but the real trouble is that the show is essentially a 90-minute one-act that’s been allowed to bloat like a leading lady who’s had catering written into her contract. Clever, yes, and occasionally a real giggle. But not brilliant, and ultimately less entertaining than it sounds—especially, one suspects, to those not obsessive enough to connect Bernadette Peters’ singing voice (in a fleeting prerecorded gag) to the name of Ruthless composer Marvin Laird (her longtime arranger and music director).

If Laird’s score were a degree more sophisticated, if Joel Paley’s lyrics didn’t so often seem forcibly grafted onto the melodies, if the keyboard reduction were less chintzy and the cast just a whit sharper or less self-conscious, you might not notice how thin the concept has been stretched. But after you’ve spent most of an evening at Source watching the machinations of the Denmarks and their friends and enemies, you may find you’re feeling just a tiny bit ruthless yourself.

There’s a question about a young lady’s career in Pericles, too, though she’s rather a more high-minded sort, and her dilemma is hardly the main theme. Not that this sprawling, unfocused drama—one of those unwieldy, rarely produced “problem plays” you hear Shakespeare scholars fuss about—has much of a main theme.

It’s got a main story, all right, one concerned with the titular Prince of Tyre, who leaves his throne to a surrogate and spends a hefty chunk of his life wandering the hinterlands after stumbling onto the truth about a powerful neighboring ruler’s incestuous proclivities.

Over the course of several decades, Pericles visits a half-dozen nations, saving one country from famine, taking a wife and siring a daughter in another, losing both women (apparently) to cruel fates, and generally having adventures on a scale most mortals only read about. For a halfheartedly characterized hero in a lesser classic, he’s a potent mix of archetypes: There are, in his story, healthy doses of wandering Odysseus, disaster-prone Candide, and long-suffering Job. (Credit Joe Banno for that analysis: It’s lifted from his director’s notes, and a perceptive one it is, though I don’t know about the comparison to Peer Gynt. That aimless rogue seems to me too self-centered to fit easily in a category with the essentially gentle Pericles.)

But if you’re looking for an overriding moral—or even a set of interlocking, complementary morals pegged to subplots—you needn’t page through Pericles. At most it’s a cautionary tale, and not a particularly adept one, about an innocent abroad in an occasionally corrupt world. But Washington Shakespeare Company’s mandate is to survey the theater’s equivalent of the Great Books, so they’ve tackled Pericles in the same spirit that they tackled Cymbeline in 1996 and in which they will no doubt tackle King John one day: It’s Shakespeare, so they’ve gotta do it eventually.

In a surprisingly effective device that turns the play’s choppy episodic structure into an asset, Banno—Source Theatre’s new artistic director, City Paper’s opera critic, and recent winner of a Helen Hayes award for last season’s Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Library—shuttles his cast and his audience alike among a half-dozen playing areas, each representing one of the various demesnes Pericles lands in on his travels. Between shifts of focus, he works much the same voodoo here that he did with Cymbeline, streamlining, updating, punching up humor, creating the occasional startling image. Military tyrants, tennis tournaments, and pot-smoking hippies who grow up to be coke-snorting (and eventually smack-shooting) tycoons all play pivotal parts—and let’s just say you won’t see anything to equal Banno’s version of the brothel at Mytilene anytime soon.

His Pericles (a capable, often affecting Ian LeValley, supported by a uniformly confident cast) begins his perambulations in an America divided by the amoral wars, foreign and domestic, of the ’60s and ’70s. Betrayed by old friends amid the greed and hedonism of the ’80s, he somehow finds redemption and hope in 1998—which, given the state of political discourse today, seems to me a bit optimistic. Still, if you’re going to give a morality play a pre-millennial reading, I suppose blue sky is a sight better than gloom and doom.

Or maybe Banno means to hint, by virtue of the specific date references he offers in the printed program, that the saccharine happiness his hero wallows in at the play’s end is a kind of “irrational exuberance” expressed in verse, a political security as tenuous as Mr. Clinton’s current fortunes. Come to think of it, I can imagine Cam Magee, WSC’s unfailingly perceptive dramaturge, advancing such a subversive argument; it’s exactly the sort of thing that makes the company’s work worth seeing, even when the text itself isn’t on anybody’s Top-10 list.

Magee and Banno are a potent pair, and if they haven’t mined the resonance from Pericles that they unearthed in that remarkable Romeo, they’ve made an awkward vehicle more than stageworthy. It’s not exactly thrilling theater, but it’s damn sure entertaining—and it’s some of the smartest stagecraft in town.CP