Stage

The vision of a talented director can shine through a stage production like liquor biting through a cocktail. But more often, the flubs of a less practiced director overwhelm the otherwise tasty mix of a solid script. A few fundamental mistakes drag down Psycho Beach Party at Theater Rhinoceros. The play has an amusing premise -- Chicklet, a Florida teen, learns to surf and wins a steady boyfriend. The catch is that she suffers from a multiple personality disorder. At the mention of the color red, the blushing teen is transformed into Anne Beaumont, a sexual dominatrix who shaves her lovers (and anyone else snoozing on the beach) baby's-ass bare. Dueling identities usually aren't a laugh riot, but the prescriptive casting of Chicklet as a man in drag reinforces the camp values. And it's very minimal drag; the ingenue is just shy of womanhood; sporting the androgynous, hipless look, she can't fill out a training bra.

Theater Rhino's bare-bones set reinforces the duality; lights change the backdrop from tacky fluorescent pink to sacrificial red. Chicklet's inner personalities are aggressive, sexual, and world-wise, suggesting that in 1962, pigtails and teen naivete were a repressive construct. Keeping Chicklet down is a Mommie Dearest-esque matriarch who beats her with a rubber glove when she asks for a surfboard to cavort with the boys. In the end, author Charles Busch gives Chicklet mental health and a date to the luau, but only after spiking the genre of innocent teen summers with a fifth of filth.

The play is giddy, simple, and deliciously twisted, and I've seen this Sybil-meets-Beach Blanket Bingo melange so crisp that it transcended the inherent vapidity of its source material. Unfortunately, director Richard Ginsberg hasn't taken the script as far as it can go. He lists respectable experience in the vocation of director in the playbill, but there are paint-by-numbers basics that haven't been mastered. The show suffers either from uneven casting or from Ginsberg's not having drawn consistent performances out of the players. Discipline is a director's toughest job -- it's rough telling a guy he's stiffer than the surfboard he's supposed to be riding. Three solid performances lead the show -- Chicklet (Jason Scott Buro), her mother (Alison Lustbader), and her best friend, Berdine (Diana Brown) -- but the rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Buro and Brown are marvelous as friends by convenience, geek girls thrown together because the boys passed them over. Berdine's a pubescent intellectual with a Schopenhauer fetish, Chicklet a half-wit tomboy. Their performances are energetic and exaggerated, two qualities that separate them from the other talent as if subjected to a centrifuge. As Marvel Ann, Deena Davenport is a shrewd man-trap who expects to be wed once she's put out for boyfriend Star Cat, but her incidental character isn't around enough to contribute much.

Irregular pacing is Psycho Beach Party's other affliction. In the opening scenes, cues drag like bridge traffic, and the cast loiters around the stage. There's no directed movement, just the conversational shuffle seen at parties. Flirtation is written into every scene, but the magnetism you'd expect from body-conscious beach kids never materializes (with the exception of bulging Flynn De Marco as surf-stud Kanaka). Emerging homosexuals Yo Yo and Provoloney seem reluctant to look at each other, let alone touch in their seduction scene. The second act explodes like a hypodermic of hype was administered during the intermission. Everyone hits his or her mark, and there's choreography and song (well, a lip-sync to a Sinatra tune), but the action is a too-late glimpse at the play's potential.

-- Julie Chase

Boomlet
No Mercy. By Constance Congdon. Directed by Larry Biederman. Starring John Robb, Neva Hutchinson, and Peter Siiteri. Presented by the Encore Theater Company at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), June 28-July 26. Call 439-2327.

When Robert Oppenheimer watched the first atom bomb explode, the words in his mind (he later said) were from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." This has the tang of a prepared statement, and I stop short of believing Oppenheimer dwelled on Hindu scripture at the crucial moment, partly because the physicists involved with the bomb were all half-worried that the explosion might set the atmosphere on fire, by starting a nuclear chain reaction with every available atom. The Trinity test proved to Oppenheimer that he wasn't yet become the shatterer of our world, which must have been a huge relief.

Constance Congdon's No Mercy takes Oppenheimer's soundbite as a motto, reverently enough, and braids a story about the explosion in New Mexico with tales about a young soldier at the test site, a televangelist, a stillborn child, and an old guitar player. Since the guitarist is the soldier 40 years later, the play's time frame is slippery; the scenes shift without warning between 1945 and 1985, and Oppenheimer himself is lost in time. "Nonlinear" is one way to describe the play, but "orbital" is a little more like it. The scenes whirl around the event of the bomb with a clever logic but without suspense. A military couple fret over the birth of their baby, the televangelist prattles about "rapture," the guitarist sings Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," and Time itself is exploded; but it all fits together in a stilted way because none of the characters has a very urgent story.

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