Pyscho Beach Party: Fun but not delirious

A remarkably tight production that's intermittently funny.

click to enlarge From L-R: Chicklet (Zachary Hines) and Berdine (Summer Bohnenkamp). - Karla Hartley
Karla Hartley
From L-R: Chicklet (Zachary Hines) and Berdine (Summer Bohnenkamp).

What’s perhaps most notable about Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party is how many targets it aims at in its inventive two hours. Yes, of course, there are the beach movies of the 60’s, particularly Gidget; but there are also such subjects as masculinity/femininity, French existentialism, multiple personality disorder, the awakening of gay love, the sorrows of a Hollywood career and, not least, sado-masochism. Three main female characters are performed by male actors in drag — more about this later — and the Stageworks production, impeccably directed by Karla Hartley, shines with professionalism. This is also a production that’s a lot of fun to look at, thanks to Frank Chavez’s delightful set, featuring attractive cut-out palm trees and a lovely phony sunrise, and the same designer’s colorful costumes, bright as anything you’ll find in an early Technicolor flick. As a physical production, this effort couldn’t be better.

As a comedy — well, that’s another story. The fact is, Beach Party is only intermittently funny, especially compared to another Busch play like The Divine Sister, presented by Stageworks a couple of years ago. Maybe the problem is that while Sister repeatedly commented on a topic on which everyone has an opinion — religion — Beach Party is predominantly about a handful of movies that aren’t on anyone’s mind and that, in any case, are already parodies of themselves. So for example, where Gidget gave us the authority figure the Big Kahuna, Beach Party offers the Big Kanaka — as if we could care. And when the Gidget character “Chicklet” declares her intention on learning to surf, we can hardly find the prospect particularly suspenseful, much less relevant. Even the MPD theme — when Chicklet turns into a fierce dominatrix — doesn’t ever feel very important after its first surprising moments. The stuff that does matter to a contemporary audience — such as the nervous approach of the male characters Provoloney and Yo-Yo to the knowledge that they love each other, and the sillier verbal gags (“Are you incognito? No, I’m German-Irish”) aren’t present in enough abundance to keep the play interesting.

And then there’s the effect of the three characters in drag. First let me insist that Matthew McGee is a comic genius, who in Beach Party plays Chicklet’s mother with so much tact and irony, there’s hardly a move he makes that’s not hilarious. But his part is relatively small (he was the lead in Divine Sister), and Beach Party depends more emphatically on Zachary Hines as Chicklet and Ricky Cona as film star Bettina Barnes. Well, the good news is, these two men are so successful at playing women, one might believe they really were females if the program didn’t assert otherwise. And that’s also the bad news, because without a strategic distance from their parts, Hines and Cona are no more amusing than any two real women would have been in the same roles. Again, McGee sets the standard: he’s always male playing female, always pointing out the contradiction, letting us in on the joke, turning deliberate failure into comic joy. Hines and Cona, on the other hand, could probably walk down the street without anyone guessing they were men. That’s impressive – but not very funny. If they’d stay a few small steps apart from their characters, the result would be much more pleasing.

But enough complaining: there’s lots to like in this sharp, kinetic production and there are a few good laughs even when McGee’s not on stage. Provoloney and Yo-Yo (Landon Green and Franco Colon) are charmingly unconscious that they want each other for most of the play’s length, and Summer Bohnenkamp is enchanting as intellectual Berdine, who thinks she’s living in Sartre’s novel Nausea. Hines is admirably persuasive as each of his multiple selves, and William E. Masuck is topnotch as the surfer-in-chief who at first spurns Chicklet’s ambition to ride the waves like a guy. As a stereotypical beach female with boys on her radar, Katrina Stevenson is pitch-perfect, and as the naïve victim of her machinations, Ryan Bernier displays a likable, open-faced innocence. Director Hartley’s sound design includes a couple of songs that the actors lip sync as well as the instrumental “Wipe-Out,” to which the whole cast dances.

If I had to pick one thing that makes Pyscho Beach Party distinctive, it would have to be Hartley’s airtight staging. This complex show has the unity only possible when a single artistic mind stamps its vision on every detail of performance and design. I’ve seen funnier comedies, but not many so utterly coherent. That’s no small accomplishment.

Psycho Beach Party

Three of five stars

Stageworks, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Through Oct. 29. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.