Dallas — What are we going to do? This was the question nagging playwright Charles Busch and his theatrical troupe, Theatre-in-Limbo, as they tried to figure out what to perform as a midnight show in the East Village that would be a change of pace from their main production off-Broadway. Busch quickly wrote a piece around a popular 1960s film character, Gidget, a teenage girl growing up in a surfer culture. (The first Gidget movie in 1959 was followed by five more with the last one in 1985, plus a TV series.) Busch’s idea was to take that character and drop her into a psychological melodrama he entitled “Gidget Goes Psychotic.”
The idea worked and audiences loved the play. While Busch admits it began as a movie parody, he decided to progress the script into something with more heft. Something campy but not pure camp, somewhat satirical but not pure satire. The result was Psycho Beach Party and while one might quibble over defining the style, what is indisputable is that Psycho Beach Party is a fun and bawdy choice to open Theatre Three’s 55th season.
Busch toyed with Hollywood stereotypes through exposing his characters’ hidden selves. The central personage, Chicklet (Jenna Anderson), is a 15-year old teenage girl with a split personality who is obsessed with learning how to surf. She pesters the beach bum surfer studs Provoloney (Zach Valdez), Star Cat (Jacob Lewis), and super macho Kanaka (Blake Lee) to teach her. Chicklet’s devoted best friend and keeper of secrets, nerdy Berdine (Steph Garrett), is always writing in her diary. Marvel Ann (Kim Swarner) is the pretty blond man-hunting vamp who sets her sights on Star Cat.
Bettina Barnes (Grace Neeley) is the slightly fading movie star who looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe and is staying incognito for a few months at a nearby beach house. Provoloney’s closest friend Yo-Yo (Heath Billups) has fabulously flippable hair. Nicky (Benjamin Bratcher) and bikini-clad Dee Dee (Abigail Palmgren) are beach dancers that weave in and out of the frame transitioning scene changes to whatever music is playing at the moment. The most dominating character is Chicklet’s mother, Mrs. Forrest (Coy Covington). She forbids Chicklet to associate with the beach bums, and refuses to give her money to buy a surfboard, thus creating the dramatic tension in the play.
This piece is designed for one or more female characters to be played by male actors. The playwright has played Marvel Ann and Chicklet in past productions. In this Theatre Three production, Mrs. Forrest is the only female character portrayed by a male actor. It is as if this role was created for Coy Covington. (Busch is a fan of Covington’s work.) He morphs in and out of Joan Crawford imagery, teasing the psychiatry, repressed sexuality, and parental dominance reminiscent of Mommie Dearest and Mildred Pierce. This is a comedy but Mama is pretty scary, a blend Covington achieves and delivers with ease.
The dialogue of the play is a mix of retro-pop slang and surfer movie clichés mixed with high language and nods to classical figures such as philosophers Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Sartre. The bulk of the high language falls to Steph Garrett who is endearing as Berdine, complete with lisp and runny nose.
Jenna Anderson is absolutely on fire as Chicklet. This is not a simple role and she has to manage several voices and sets of physical gestures. Her standout scene-of-persuasion with Blake Lee is one of the funniest and most memorable moments in the play.
Heath Billups is not trying to steal scenes as Yo-Yo. It cannot be helped unless someone covers his face. His gestural work is spot on, starting with his facial expressions. He cracks me up.
Director Bruce R. Coleman’s scenic design is colorful and creative, particularly the surfing scene in the major alcove which has been converted to suggest ocean waves rising and falling. It is not often that the set receives applause, but that is what happened during the surfing scene on opening night.
The ’60s time period is established through the costumes and music. The costumes are stylistically accurate and well designed, especially those for Mrs. Forrest and Bettina. Music recordings include Connie Francis singing “Where the Boys Are” (Neil Sadaka and Howard Greenfield), the Beach Boys performing “Surfing USA,” (Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry), the instrumental version of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster) and “Fever” (Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell).
Psycho Beach Party is hard not to enjoy. What better time to see it than now, as the summer temps are approaching the century mark?