Certain types of creative enterprises lend themselves to labels that attempt to define the relative importance or quality of the creative product. The music business recordings have an A-side and a B-side, with the former considered the better. This labeling is also found in film production, but mostly in describing a low-budget production with marginally good to abysmally bad scripts and creative teams ranging from professionally competent to amateurish. They were called B-movies and were used as a second bill in the double feature movies from the mid 1930’s to the mid-1960’s.
Ode to the Wasp Woman (entitled in tribute to the 1959 film of the same name), written and directed by Rider McDowell, is a play done in the style of film noir and true crime films of the 1950’s. The show focuses on the events leading up to the death of four actors from the B-movies of the 1950’s: Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Susan Cabot, George Reeves, and Barbara Payton.
It is essentially four acts in style and dialogue that are uneven in terms of theatrical structure, but given the nature of B-movies, they fit within the two dominant styles of noir and true crime. Even though McDowell captures the feel of a B-movie, there are issues within the production that don’t fit. It also takes some knowledge of B-movies in terms of genres and styles. If you do not know what the B-movies were like, you may not like the show, and even if you are a B-movie fan, you may not pick up on the resemblance to those movies.
It starts with the four main characters coming onto a darkened stage in what appears to be a funeral home viewing room. As they stand in a line on the stage, a voice over of each briefly tells who they were and when they died. As their voiceovers end, each leaves the stage. The first of the four one-act stories begins when the last character leaves.
Carl Switzer (Josh Alscher) created the role of Alfalfa in the Our Gang film series of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It was the high point of his career. He is now a dog trainer, part-time bartender, and sometimes a “star” attraction for store openings. He is hunting with a friend while trying to train a dog for one of his customers. The dog runs off but is found later after a reward is offered. Switzer tries to recover the reward money plus expenses from the dog’s owner. What happens in the encounter over the money leads to Switzer’s death.
The story doesn’t tell us much about Switzer, but his behavior makes it clear that he is a rude, self-absorbed jerk, bitter about how his life has turned out after his time in the movies. The broad overacting by Alscher and the almost amateurish acting by the supporting players fit the stylistic context of the show. While Alscher is over the top, the supporting players David Wenzel, Rita Louise, Jonathan Hartman, and Anna Telfer play it straight with solid B-movie characterizations as they do in each of the stories that follow.
The next is the story of Susan Cabot, solidly performed by Sean Young in her New York theater debut. The story takes place in the mid-1980’s at a point in Cabot’s life where her mental health has significantly declined. Cabot was a modestly successful movie, stage, and television actor from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s. She had a seven-year affair with King Hussein of Jordan, from which her only child, Timothy, was born in 1964 and suffered from a form of dwarfism. The show gives some of her son’s background and hints that she stopped performing because of her desire to protect him. Young’s performance of Cabot’s mental state shows someone at the end of their tether.
The main problem with this story is the depiction of her son. After years of hormone injections, he has grown to 5 feet, 4 inches, but Alscher is at least 5 feet, 10 inches. He does his best to “act small,” but the mismatch in size makes the story more comedy than pathos.
The George “Superman” Reeves story best represents the B-movie style. Douglas Everett Davis gives a portrait of a man who suffers from alcoholism and while nice to most people is emotionally abusive to his wives and lovers. The bitterness he feels is from being seen as Superman and not a skilled actor. This story starts at a point immediately after his suicide and then flashes back to the two days leading up to his death. The dialogue is a good presentation of the dry, unemotional text typical of many B-movies. Davis’ line readings are perfectly executed within this style.
The last act is the story of Barbara Payton, a talented actor whose good looks, promiscuity, and involvement with gossip magazines led to her being rejected by Hollywood. She became a prostitute, ended up homeless and addicted to drugs before moving back to her parent’s home. Payton Georgiana presents two distinct characterizations of Barbara Payton. The first is in a short backstory that implies being molested by her father when she was a teenager, and the second is when she is at her lowest just before her death. These are both solid B-movie performances.
Three of the four stories end with the character coming center stage for some closing thoughts and an introduction to the next story. It is a B-movie technique where dialogue is spoken as a matter-of-fact explanatory narration or as a coda to the story. In this show, it is used as a coda and introduction to the next story, and the dialogue is written and delivered in a B-movie style.
There is an element within each of the stories that does not fit with the B-movie approach: having each character sing a song. It is an aspect of the production that distracts from the thrust of each act. It leaves the viewer wondering what the song has to do with the story and the characters. The only song that clearly fits the character is “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” sung at the end of the Barbara Payton story.
The scenic design by Christian Fleming is problematic. The upstage set is a wall representing a funeral parlor lobby or possibly a viewing room. It does not change during the show, as chairs and tables are rearranged for scenes in the various stories. Maarten Cornelis’ lighting design works hard to achieve the contrasting light and dark typical of B-movies to mixed success.
The costuming by Pearl Gopalani also has varied success depending on the story. In the opening, the hunting gear of the actors is comical, while uneven in the Cabot story, with Young’s outfits working but not Alscher’s. The costumes in the Reeves piece are the best and most coherent. Music director Thayer Naples’ management of the incidental music and the songs sung by the characters is handled well, even with the doubts about the selections used.
Ode to the Wasp Woman (through January 31, 2024)
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call: 212-239-6200, or visit https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Ode-to-the-Wasp-Woman/Overview
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission