Buzz Cuts

'As Bees in Honey Drown' satirizes America's love of fame without achievement.

Alexa Vere de Vere is the queen bee in the hive of American pop culture, envied by the drones and supported in her life of luxury by dozens of little worker bees--young, naïve writers and artists and dancers and rockers who've just had their very first taste of the sweet nectar of success.

Evan Wyler is one of those worker bees, who after nine years of toil is finally enjoying the buzz surrounding his first novel. Alexa recruits him to write a treatment for a film based on her incredibly flamboyant life as a socialite and record producer. "I'm not good at listening to people and figuring out what's going on in their minds, and summing it up in a grand, sweeping statement," he protests--an odd confession from a writer. But this is to Alexa's advantage. "Lamb," she repeatedly calls Evan, and sure enough the lamb is about to get fleeced in As Bees in Honey Drown, entering its final weekend in a Borderlands Theater production.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane was something of an Evan 10 years ago, a writer supporting himself by babysitting for friends. Then he was suddenly a media darling when film studios declared a bidding war over his screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. That drag-queen comedy was hardly the last word in multidimensional storytelling and character development, and while watching As Bees in Honey Drown one is sometimes tempted to murmur, "Depth, where is thy sting?" Yet this play is all about superficiality and façades, "fame without achievement," as one character puts it, so we can't fault Beane for skimming the brilliant surface he provides.

What actress could resist the role of Alexa, who is Auntie Mame, Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly wrapped up in one little black dress? Certainly not Betsy Kruse, who gives the impression of sweeping across the stage when she's just sitting there buttering a brioche. Equal parts Tallulah Bankhead and Rosalind Russell, with a dash of Audrey Hepburn thrown in for the sake of calculated vulnerability, Kruse splendidly delivers a character who is at once a free spirit and a self-aware conniver.

As Evan, Benjamin Fritz has a balancing act that's more sequential: bemused, seduced, wounded, vengeful. Fritz handles each well, but is less successful in the transitions; he's done no favors by the script's herky-jerky development.

And there's something just slightly off in the early scenes between Alexa and Evan. The actors and director Chris Wilken understand that these encounters must fly by, as Evan is hypnotized by Alexa's dexterous drone of name-dropping. Yet everything moves so fast that Fritz and Kruse can't establish a real connection until well into the first act.

But after that everything proceeds expertly in this satire of the complex con that is the mass-entertainment industry, its denizens attracted to and then trapped in the sweet goo of fame, money, ambition and comfort.

In the second act, Brent Gibbs provides some needed low-key sanity as the modestly successful painter who unwittingly made Alexa what she is today. Multiple smaller roles are ably filled by Steve McKee, Lisa Mae Roether and Mary Cavett.

I happened to attend on klutz night: Kruse dropped one prop, she and Gibbs broke another, and her flapper wig threatened to slip off during a clinch. Not only that, but some of the music cues were so loud that they covered a couple of lines. None of this could detract from this viciously engaging overall production of As Bees in Honey Drown, a confection of whipped honey with a jalapeño afterburn.

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