Twisted, written by Joel Greenhouse and directed by Joe John Battista, is a “campy” send-up of particular types of B-films from the 1950s and 1960s. It is a comedy with music and some songs, but it is primarily a bunch of scenes that relate to B-movies. If you are not a connoisseur of that era’s cheesy exploitation and horror films, you will not understand the references. It pays homage to Roger Corman and the other directors of that period plumbing the depths of some of the worst of the B-movies.
My first reaction to Twisted was one of derision, considering it one of the worst shows I had seen in the last few years, but as I began to write about it, I realized that it was presenting a good send-up of the B-movies by being a “bad” play.
It takes considerable skill for competent actors to play at being bad actors, and many of the cast members succeed. It is not a bad play, but the overarching problem with the show is that it is playing to a niche audience. If you do not know anything about the B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s, you will react as I did in thinking it is a terrible play. If you are familiar with the work of Roger Corman, William Castle, or any other B-film directors, or any of the films, such as Galaxy of Terror, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Tingler, The Curse of the Werewolf, or any of the dozen movies of that period, you may enjoy this production.
The show starts with what can be considered a visual overture as the audience files into the theater. It is a well-produced film listing the cast and principal members of the production team in the style of the opening credits in B-films of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It presents an intriguing introduction to what is to follow.
Two elements are driving the play. The first is the mystery of an ancient cult, and the second is a murder. These two story lines collide midway through the show. In the opening scene, some prostitutes are plying their trade on a deserted street. A tall, dark stranger appears and approaches them and rejects them. As the stranger turns to the audience and begins to give a brief history of the cult of which he is a member, a third prostitute appears and approaches him. He whispers something in her ear, and she steps back in fear; he grabs her and disappears into the night.
The tall, dark stranger is Romain Monteblanc de Lacroix, solidly played by Robert Z. Grant. He inhabits a character who is at times charming and aristocratic and, at other points, dark and menacing, and he does it with a balance of seriousness and playfulness. It is a performance that appears to be patterned after Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The murder is established in the next scene. It takes place in a seedy apartment. A young woman, Phoebe Flame (Maude Lardner Burke), is a woman in her late 20’s but is dressed as an 11-year-old. She is playing with a doll. She is the daughter of Renee Flame (Penny Balfour), an actress who has fallen on hard times. These two characters will play pivotal roles in the story. There is a knock on the door and Renee’s gangster boyfriend Vito (Tony Del Bono) enters and starts to rough her up when she refuses his advances. Renee kills him and blames it on Phoebe.
Burke does a credible job inhabiting Phoebe, alternating between a child’s behavior and that of a psychopathic adult. Her moments of psychotic rage are powerfully presented, as are the moments of quiet reflection. Balfour lacks the physical presence needed to depict someone struggling to survive. Still, her performance is perfectly attuned to the show’s theme in that she is playing someone who is a mediocre actor and gives a performance that fits the character; it is uneven and unconvincing.
Penny Balfour in a scene from Joel Greenhouse’s “Twisted” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: John Phelps)
The remainder of the show is Renee moving from strip joint to strip joint waiting for her agent to land her a role in a movie, when she encounters Romaineand becomes a ritual object for the cult. Her daughter has been sent to a mental hospital for the criminally insane, from which she escapes after ten years. Romaine Monteblanc de Lecroix spends his time recruiting people to the cult while simultaneously killing people.
There are two other performances of note. Andrew Ryan Perry as Sinclair Monteblanc de Lacroix, the brother of Romaine, makes his character believable as a womanizer with strong cannibalistic tendencies towards women who touch him. His transitions around a woman, from charming to cannibalistic, are effective, but in true B-movie style, the character is superficially drawn. Brian Belovitch, as Lavinia Monteblanc de Lacroix, plays to the hilt, the mother and leader of the cult. He is everything one would expect from a former The Ridiculous Theatrical Company member. His performance is over-the-top and believable as the demented mother of two psychopathic men. The scenes with Belovitch and Grant are some of the best.
The rest of the ensemble are suitably B-movie types and are believable as mediocre to bad actors. Their physical actions are suitably bad, such as mugging, shaking as if shocked, or playing dead, but perfect for the show.
The costumes by Wendy Tonken fit well with the show’s theme, with some being laughably bad. The set design by Mark Marcante is perfectly in line with a low budget attempt at staging. The lighting design by Brian Park also fits the overall theme, providing the almost correct feeling to various scenes. The sets are limited, with some props looking like they were scavenged from the trash or bought at a low-end thrift store. Sevin Ceviker’s choreography is another element in tune with the show’s B-movie vibe. It looks like an attempt at choreography but just misses.
Penny Balfour and Brian Belovitch in a scene from Joel Greenhouse’s “Twisted” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: John Phelps)
And the music, oh my, the music by Peter W. Dizozza and Battista and lyrics by Greenhouse is a mashup of different styles and techniques, most of which come across as after-thoughts. It is another detail that brings out the connection to the B-movie theme: songs spoken with no rhyme scheme, sung off-key, or done well with interesting lyrics.
Burke sings/speaks the lines of her song like a dedicated punk-rocker, with all the spit and anger one would expect. Balfour’s ode to her life is another spoken/sung gem of a bad song. Grant and Perry are spot on with their songs being almost on-key, and of Belovitch’s two songs, the one late in the show is perfect as a doo-wop anthem to her late husband.
Twisted (through October 15, 2023)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, between Ninth and Tenth Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call: 212-254-1109, or visit https://twistedshow.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission