In Ode to the Wasp Woman, an original play with music now playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Actors Temple Theatre, writer and director Rider McDowell delves into the last 48 hours in the desperate lives and deaths of four fallen Hollywood B-listers from the 20th century. Presented as four one-act shorts, it’s a tabloid-style tale that exposes the sensational events leading to the demise of Our Gang’s Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, leading lady Susan Cabot of Roger Corman’s cult classic The Wasp Woman, TV’s Superman George Reeves, and notorious model-turned-actress-turned-prostitute Barbara Payton, who titled her autobiography I Am Not Ashamed.
The production opens to the sound of organ music in a dimly lit funeral home. The lights suddenly go down, and four figures appear out of the darkness on stage, in a nod to film noir. One by one they take the spotlight and introduce themselves to us and how they met their tragic ends via voiceover. Then the four consecutive acts of their final days begin, each following the same format, from re-enactments of their troubled lives to their untimely deaths (Switzer and Cabot by murder, Reeves by suicide, and Payton from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver), with each character performing one familiar expressive folk-rock song to the accompaniment of pre-recorded acoustic guitar music (e.g. Payton’s plaintive “Help Me Make It through the Night” – she doesn’t) and ending with their direct-address post-mortem introductions of the next doomed actor.
Similar themes recur throughout their grim has-been stories, from the familial dysfunction and conflicted relationships with partners, friends, and colleagues, to the sexual abuse and alcoholism, blind ambition and ego, anger, profanity-filled diatribes, and recklessness that led them to their premature passing, in what can be seen as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of stardom and fleeting fame. Hooray for Hollywood.
While the format of the show is consistent, the tone is not. It ranges from the aforementioned inspiration of tabloid journalism and mid-century noir to true-crime accounts and over-the-top portrayals that recall the stylings of the tell-all movie exposé Mommie Dearest, with laughable behavior that crosses into parody, including the ridiculous coaching of Cabot’s son Timmy by his mother to drop names and to tell an unfunny joke, and her insistence that he continue his injections to treat his dwarfism (in contrast to a serious go-back reflection on his birth and diagnosis).
Under McDowell’s variable writing and direction (with active blocking that has the characters entering from the aisles and performing downstage direct-address monologues and songs), the cast – screen star Sean Young in her New York stage debut as the tenacious Cabot, Josh Alscher as the irresponsible, goofy, and heavy-drinking Switzer, Douglas Everett Davis as the suave and seemingly controlled Reeves, and Payton Georgiana as the self-destructive party-girl Payton, supported by Jonathan Hartman, Rita Louise, Anna Telfer, and David Wenzel appearing in multiple roles (as do Alscher and Davis) – interweaves one genre with the next, moving away from the program cover’s description of the show as “a new noir play” and frequently eliciting sardonic laughs from the audience.
The artistic design features a set by Christian Fleming with movable furniture that changes with the scenes, vintage props by Mac and Piers McDowell that suit the times and situations (among them, a rotary-dial desk phone, countless bottles of alcohol, the murder weapons, and a poster of Payton’s 1951 B-movie Bride of the Gorilla), and dark lighting by Maarten Cornelis that evokes the noir tradition, then shifts to brightness with the differing moods and genres. Costumes by Pearl Gopalani and Montgomery Frazier (for Young) define the characters and the era, from Reeves’ debonair look to the déshabillé of Payton, and Bob ‘The Hammer’ Franco’s sound delivers the clear voiceovers and music (musical direction by Thayer Naples), as well as the loud gunshots and sirens.
Ode to the Wasp Woman is a mash-up of elements and, as noted in the program, the interests of its writer, which, for me, didn’t fully congeal into a satisfying whole or congruent noir tone, despite the inherently dark and disturbing quality of its theme.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
Ode to the Wasp Woman plays through Wednesday, January 31, 2024, at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $70-90, including fees, with premium tickets available at $149), call (212) 2239-6200, or go online.