Etcetera's latest production, Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party, has a minimalist set befitting a late-night show: On the simple painted backdrop is a picture of Elvis. It's a nod to the King's beach movies, which the show partly celebrates and partly satirizes.
But Psycho Beach Party is a mashup of more than Elvis' camp-movie classics. The playwright's website describes the play as a "shotgun marriage" of Gidget, Frankie (Avalon) and Annette (Funicello) beach-party epics, and Hitchcock psychological suspense thrillers such as Spellbound and Marnie. It was an off-Broadway hit in 1987, and Busch eventually adapted it into a screenplay for a 2000 movie.
But what if you haven't spent your life ingesting '60s romps or thrillers? Will you still be able to enjoy the show? The simple answer is yes, absolutely. Like all effective satires, Psycho is good even if you don't know the material it's mocking.
Departing Etcetera artistic director Christopher Johnson stars as Chicklet, a teenage girl who longs to be a surfer. Whether or not you've seen Gidget (either the Sandra Dee movie or the Sally Field television show), Johnson will make you crack a smile.
He plays the role in drag, with stylized earnestness (all "Gosh!" and "Jeepers!"), but no attempt is made to make the drag realistic. As Chicklet complains with squeaky-clean seriousness about her skinny figure, Johnson's tall, muscular frame is stuffed into a skimpy dress that reveals his hairy legs. It's an old joke, but done well by the right performer, as it is here, it's consistently funny.
Most of the female parts are played by men in drag, a nod to playwright Busch's long and acclaimed career as a drag performer. Each actor takes his own approach, though none are costumed believably as women. Then again, the over-the-top characters in '60s beach flicks were pretty, stylized versions of "real women," too.
Eddie Diaz is Marvel Ann, the leader of Chicklet's friends. Diaz is bouncy and appealing, while giving his character a dash of deviousness. Marvel Ann sets her sights on the beach's biggest stud, a surfer named Star Cat. Danielle Dryer moves the drag fun in the opposite direction, female to male, and her Star Cat is an amusingly dim hunk.
Then there's Ryan Butler as Berdine, Chicklet's bookish best friend. I last saw Butler in Live Theatre Workshop's The Foreigner; his performance was fine, if not extraordinary. But here is a case of actor and part melding seamlessly: I never would have said to myself, "I bet Butler would be just excellent playing a nerdy teenage girl who frequently quotes Nietzsche and Sartre." But somehow, the fit is perfect; his overly serious Berdine is one of the standouts in a solid comic lineup.
David Alexander Johnston (currently starring in LTW's mainstage show, Harvey) is drag-alicious as Chicklet's mother. His thin eyebrows and lurid makeup evoke Faye Dunaway's crazed Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
At one point, Johnston makes a reference to Harvey, and Johnson's Chicklet indignantly calls him out for "plugging his mainstage show during my last Etcetera performance!" It's a lovely little in-joke, drawing attention to the fact that Johnson will step down as Etcetera's artistic director after Psycho Beach Party. (He will stay in Tucson as a company member at the Rogue Theatre, and as a co-artistic director of Winding Road Theater Ensemble.)
Psycho Beach Party is an appropriate Etcetera last call for Johnson, and the show's manic energy is perfect for late night. Director Leslie J. Miller does an excellent job of keeping the pace fast and furious, with no slow moments.
The show dances on the brink of edginess without ever crossing over into the truly controversial. Chicklet has a "psycho" alter-ego, Ann, to whom Johnson gives a booming, imperious voice. While Ann is bent on "world domination," she never does anything more radical than some light bondage-discipline-sadomasochism with the beach's surfing star, Kanaka (Eric Anson). There's no psycho-killing, in other words.
The play does throw around some salty words and has suggestive moments. It's not good, clean fun, but it's not so dirty, either. (No one younger than 16 is admitted, which seems about right.) Similarly, while the drag performances tweak gender norms, Psycho Beach Party more or less stays away from social commentary. For instance, when two supporting characters reveal their gay love for each other, the rest of the cast reacts with polite disinterest. "Being gay is great and all, but let's not get too sentimental about it" seems to be the production's attitude.
But perhaps that kind of nonchalance toward sexuality and gender roles is, in and of itself, a kind of commentary. Fun is fun, no matter what.
And the play mocks guilty-pleasure movies, while celebrating their rather innocent appeal. This knowing approach makes Psycho Beach Party something beyond a guilty pleasure. Go see this well-done romp, and feel no guilt about it.