Story: Chiclet Forrest wants desperately to be included in the fun times of the local Malibu surfer group. She’s a bit reserved, perhaps because of the quiet life she lives with her mother. It’s 1962, and Mrs. Forrest likes to dress up and sip a martini while doing the domestic chores.
Chiclet -- she says she’s not considered cute enough to be a full-fledged chick -- hangs out with her best friend, nerdy Berdine, while longing to emulate guy magnet Marvel Ann. Mostly, she dreams about being draped on the arm of cool surfer dude Kanaka, who generally talks about hanging ten with his pal Star Cat and their wannabe followers, Provoloney and Yo-Yo.
One day, Kanaka says something that suddenly startles Chiclet and transforms her into a dominating femme fatale who refers to herself as Anne Bowman. After a while, other personalities also seem to emerge without a warning in the puzzled teen. When Hollywood starlet Bettina Barnes wanders into the group’s midst on the beach, the boys start scheming of a life in the movies while Chiclet faces some unforeseen challenges that threaten her very survival.
Highlights: Charles Busch has made a very successful career out of writing wacky scripts and casting himself as the lead ‘girl,’ as he did with this 1987 comedy in which he portrayed Chiclet. Following that lead, director Justin Been has tapped into the considerable comic talents of Ben Watts, who is the engine who drives this hilarious vehicle through its two acts, with only a bump in the road near the end of Act I of the current Stray Dog Theatre presentation.
Other Info: Watts isn’t alone in the humorous casting department, as Stephen Peirick dons wig, necklace and high heels to assay the role of the deceptively frumpy Mrs. Forrest. While Peirick is a bit over-the-top in parts, suitably melodramatic in the role, Watts maintains a straightforward, intentionally ‘flat’ interpretation (pun intended) of Chiclet that only enhances his whimsical portrayal. Of course, it’s a totally different story when one of ‘the others’ takes control of Chiclet’s mind.
Been’s pacing is delightful for the most part, except for about the final 10 minutes in the first act that drag as drearily as a dune buggy with a flat tire. Action picks up rapidly, though, at the start of Act II and continues at an amusing clip all the way through the climax. He also uses the entire performance space at the Tower Grove Abbey with amusing effect.
Anna Skidis nearly steals the show as Chiclet’s brainy chum Berdine, aided by some garishly unattractive, horn-rimmed glasses courtesy of props designers Gary Bell and Jay Hall, whose work is amusingly complemented by designer Marcy Weigert’s fanciful array of wigs, both artful and garish. Skidis’ furrowed brow and toothy proclamations are a stitch to behold.
Action is played out on the suitably cartoonish set designed by Been, who also adds a most effective soundtrack that features clever covers of iconic surfer tunes. Tyler Duenow effectively uses various degrees of lighting to highlight scenes, and costume designer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley dresses the ‘boys’ up in beach gear and the girls in some fitfully funny outfits, especially Watts and Skidis.
Busch’s script is a clever parody of early ‘60s beach movies as well as psycho shockers, complete with a signature Psycho knife at one point. Combined with HotCity Theatre’s December presentation of The Divine Sister, the St. Louis area seems to be enjoying a Busch revival.
Joining in on the fun are Paul Cooper as the ‘cool’ Kanaka, Zach Wachter as Star Cat, who’s torn between a career in surfing or one in psychiatry (logical), Paul Edwards as the overly exuberant Yo-Yo and Jake Ferree as his slow-thinking love interest Provoloney. Suzanne Burke is fun as the petulant Marvel Ann and Sarajane Alverson completes the effervescent cast as the vacuous screen siren Bettina.
Surf’s up and the cast is ‘down’ with low comedy in Stray Dog’s genial good-time rendering of Psycho Beach Party.
Play: Psycho Beach Party
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: February 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb