As a film historian I was a sucker for Drama Queens from Hell, playwright Peter Lefcourt’s homage/rip-off/mash-up of movie maestro Billy Wilder’s 1950 immortal masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. To be fair, Lefcourt’s two-acter also contains an original story that imaginatively, wittily riffs on Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett’s saga about a young screenwriter’s (William Holden as Joe Gillis) relationship with an aging silent screen diva (Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond) dreaming of a comeback and her butler/chauffeur and former director (Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling) in her decaying mansion, located at that eponymous boulevard of broken dreams. All three thespians were Oscar-nommed, as was the film for Best Picture, while Wilder and Brackett scored a screenwriting Academy Award.
In Queens, middling helmer Gerard Manville (a good-natured Paul Galliano) somehow manages to acquire the rights to Sunset Boulevard (which Queens apparently did not do, proving once again, as Matt Groening once philosophically said about all of the purloining of Simpsons imagery for unauthorized paraphernalia: “Massive copyright infringement is the sincerest form of flattery”). The prospect of a big screen remake of Wilder’s classic sets off a feeding frenzy, unleashing the trio of titular drama queens, all (mis)represented by Hollywood agent Artie Paramecium (Rick Podell, a Broadway veteran who was an original cast member of the musical version of Sunset Boulevard, acting opposite Glenn Close and then Betty Buckley, who reprised the Norma Desmond role - one of the most coveted in the repertoire).
The drolly named Paramecium (protozoa often found in stagnant, brackish bodies of water - like, you know, Tinseltown) makes one of the most hilarious, inventive entrances this reviewer has ever seen on the boards. (Although set designer Pete Hickok stage is more functional than aesthetic, his Queens’ props deserves - well - props.) And the comedy’s queens, all eager to depict the choice role of the demented Desmond, are likewise funny: Christopher Callen (on the Great White Way this stage stalwart played Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha in 1776 and Hodel in a Fiddler on the Roof revival with Zero Mostel) portrays the aging Maxine Zabar, who’s afraid she’s been maxed out of her career due to advancing years.
Felicia (not Foxy) Brown (Dee Freeman, a two-time nominee for the NAACP’s Image Award), a former bit player in Blaxploitation flix (a point not well-developed in the script), is also vying for the big part, projecting an African American spin and context onto Norma Desmond. But in terms of Lefcourt making a satirical point about today’s greater diversity, he surpasses the notion of an African queen portraying Norma with transgender thesp Brianne-Brian McCauley (Chad Borden, with Richard Sabine alternating in the role) also auditioning to play the character immortalized by Gloria Swanson in her last major role. (The notion of how gender roles have evolved over the years is noteworthy - the fact that Swanson’s Desmond desperately expressed libidinous yearnings at the ripe old age of 50 was viewed as absurd, unseemly and laughable in way back in 1950.)
Along the way this heady concoction, helmed with pizzazz by frequent Lefcourt collaborator Terri Hanauer, enables the play to comment upon and lampoon various and sundry concerns: The 99-seat venue/Actors’ Equity issue; acting gurus; hormonal doctors; silent cinema stars; the bathroom brouhaha at North Carolina, etc.; the Meisner Technique; the Hollywood scene in general; and much more.
The would-be romp, however, falls short. There are several African American jokes, including Felicia’s acceptance speech at an otherwise ribtickling fantasy awards sequence, that poke fun at “political correctness” in a rightwing sort of way. I mean, isn’t it just hysterical that people in this great democracy of ours have become empowered enough to push back against harmful public expressions that demeans and ridicules them? How dare these upstarts impose on the oppressors’ “freedom of speech”? Don’t the insulted and downtrodden have a sense of humor?
(Have you ever noticed most conservatives denouncing “political correctness” that seeks to protect the rights of society’s underdogs never fail to viciously attack those who use speech to critique their sacred cows, such as the police, god, military, church? They never ever defend dissenters from rules and regulations imposed on critics of Zionist ultra-militarism and endorsers of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions of Israel? Have you heard a single righty hypocritical critic of “political correctness” condemn N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ordering of state agencies not to do business with B.D.S. supporters and similar measures on college campuses, etc.? I have no idea where Lefcourt stands on this particular issue but I do remember well his previous lame attempt at satire, The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy, wherein the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were reduced to buffoonish caricatures and how the brutal murder of the co-leader of the Russian Revolution, who then opposed Stalin, was depicted. As if getting an ice pick smashed into the back of one’s skull is a laughing matter. Talk about theatrical skullduggery!)
Meanwhile, back at the review:
Act One is too long, at best mildly amusing, and black and white clips from Sunset Boulevard projected onto a large screen are too sparsely used. And as written, Paramecium is not smarmy enough. But Queens’ first act does (albeit rather elaborately!) setup up Act Two well, which really pays off. It includes very clever uses of scenes from Wilder’s movie, especially those that involve interaction between Holden and Swanson onscreen and the actors onstage (or at least of their voices - is it live or is it Memorex?). Manville’s exit at the end is also staged with another hilarious use of a prop. (O Hickok, thou art a Hitchcock!)
The second act is much shorter and I suspect that cutting about 20 minutes from Act I and making it more concise would improve this play. Be that as it may, Lefcourt and his production do succeed in not merely exploiting the brand name Wilder, Brackett and company co-created two thirds of a century ago, but in making something new that legitimately references a film noir classic.
Mylette Nora’s period and contemporary apparel also enhances the show and was complicated, because it covered not only fashions from today and 1950 but back in the silent screen era, too. So this gifted costume designer (who also recently outfitted the casts of Recorded in Hollywood and the Elvis-era Heartbreak Hotel and has won the NAACP Theatre Award for best costumes) really had her work cut out for her.
One thing I missed in Queens was a depiction of the late, great Erich von Stroheim, one of silent cinema’s towering directors, although he is referenced in the dialogue a tad. (And where oh where was the monkey?!) Fun facts: Sunset Boulevard’s film within a film, Queen Kelly, which is screened during Wilder’s movie, is redolent with irony - as is its title, given the name of Drama Queens from Hell. Queen Kelly was probably Swanson’s last important role until Norma Desmond arrived - the 1929 sextravaganza was one of those legendary troubled Hollywood productions that went way over budget and over which egos clashed, amidst creative differences. It was produced by Swanson’s lover, Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s dad) and - get this - directed by, but of course, Erich von Stroheim (until he was banished from the set, that is). Queen Kelly was reportedly not released per se in the U.S. (until a restored version was released in 1985), so the tantalizing glimpses of it in Sunset Boulevard may have been the first time American viewers saw any of it. As said, in Wilder’s movie, von Stroheim’s Max the butler had been Swanson’s director, lover and husband back during her heyday in Hollywood. What delicious irony!
Here’s another fun fact, vintage film fans: A revival of Christopher Hampton’s 1980s play Tales From Hollywood was also staged in 2010 at the Odyssey, one of L.A.’s finest, multi-stage theaters. Tales is about European - mostly German - anti-fascist refugees from Hitler’s Germany who settled in the film colony, such as playwright Bertolt Brecht (Daniel Zacapa) and novelist Thomas Mann (Kent Minnault). Billy Wilder was one of those Europeans who got going while the going was good and landed in Tinseltown, although I don’t remember him being depicted in Hampton’s stellar comedy drama. However, the talented Hampton DID co-write the book and lyrics for Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber!
Drama Queens from Hell may be more for diehard vintage film fans than for theatergoers per se, although the second act thoroughly redeems it and is full of laughs. The way Manville meets his fate - shall we say he’s “unmanned”? - is also quite droll: Call it a “triple header.” So those who love comedy (in particular, laugh-out-loud sight gags worthy of Buster Keaton and outrageous performances) plus those interested in the evolving depiction of transgender and Black characters are also likely to find it worth seeing. To paraphrase Billy Wilder: “Some like it fraught.”
Drama Queens from Hell plays on Fridays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. through Sept. 25 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more info: (323)960-7787; www.plays411.com/dramaqueens.
Reviewer Ed Rampell is the solo author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of three movie/TV histories about the screen image of Pacific Islanders, including The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.