note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi
Written by Ryan Landry
Directed by James Byrne
Question: would you go see a play where the heroine refers to herself as "a poor slut from Worcester"? And portrayed by a man in drag? And playing in the basement of a gay leather bar, where audience members can swig their beer during the show and check each other out at intermission? If your answer is "no", then I'll see you next review. If it's "yes", "maybe" or "Well, I shouldn't, but....", read on.
MADAME EX, my first exposure to Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans, pays camp homage to the 1966 Lana Turner film classic -– a weepie if ever there was one (and is still effective to those who succumb). Viewing "X" before viewing "EX" will add to the enjoyment of how Mr. Landry and his troupe send up/depart from the film; but allow me:
THE FILM: Holly Parker, a shop girl from San Francisco, marries Connecticut socialite Clay Anderson and is brought home to the family estate presided over by Clay's patrician mother, Estelle. As Clay becomes more and more involved with politics and travel, Holly – lonely and now mother of a young son – reaches out to Paul, a Latino playboy, with disastrous results. Knowing a scandal can wreck Clay's chances in Washington, Estelle – who hates his wife, anyway – blackmails Holly into vanishing from the scene in exchange for helping her beat a murder rap. Holly flees (as "Elizabeth Miller") to wander the world aimlessly – briefly finding solace in the arms of a Danish concert pianist – sinking lower and lower, until she murders yet another blackmailer and ends up in court as "Madame X", being defended by her now-grown son, Clay, Jr., who remains unaware of her identity to the end.
THE PLAY: Holly Parker, "a poor slut from Worcester", marries Worcester socialite Clay Anderson and is brought home to the family estate (guess where) presided over by Clay's patrician mother, Estelle (a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Martha Raye). As Clay becomes more and more involved with politics, travel and his mother's body (oh, yes), Holly – lonely and now mother of a young son (on Ritalin) – reaches out to King Pinga, a Puerto Rican UPS man, with disastrous results (in a page torn from Turner's life) – but not until King gets Holly hooked on Ecstasy. Knowing a scandal can wreck Clay's chances in Washington and Rome (he soon becomes both President and Pope), Estelle – who hates his wife, anyway – blackmails Holly into vanishing from the scene in exchange for helping her beat a murder rap – only 'tis Estelle who winds up vanishing. But Holly flees anyway (as "Elizabeth Montgomery") to wander the Worcester area aimlessly – briefly finding solace at Salem Village, where she has a sex change but soon reverts to wearing dresses – sinking lower and lower, until she murders another blackmailer – Famous Shamus McAnus – and ends up in court as "Madame X", defended by her now-grown son, Clay, Jr., who remains unaware of her identity to the very end. Throw in, for good measure, giant tap-dancing "X" pills; spinning newspaper headlines; sex in the bushes ("What came over me?"); a Boston swan boat; slides of the Big Dig; the White House and the Vatican being relocated to Worcester; an on-screen cameo from a local TV critic; a crushed Christmas angel (whose second appearance provides one of the evening's biggest laughs); a surprise guest witness at the murder trial; the clink of beer bottles – well, what are you waiting for? (A special mention goes to Tim McCarthy's clever screen projections, especially the opening credits from the Turner film, where the names of Mr. Landry & Company replace those of the original cast.)
So how does one (seriously) review this show, which happily revels in its own trashiness and may not be as much fun if given a more conventional theatre, a full-scale production and "mainstream" acting? Perhaps the best way is to remove the stigma of "drag queen" and see the performers as clowns who wear dresses instead of baggy pants. In that light, Mr. Landry and his all-male cast (save for a child actress) succeed very well; they made me – and the rest of the audience – laugh long and often. Mrs. Grundy may be outraged by the potshots at her gender, so be warned – this is Boys' Night Out: rough-edged, hit-or-miss, and where anything goes; including Estelle's skirt – twice. But throughout the raunch and the zaniness, Mr. Landry's Holly remains an endearing soul – tacky, but endearing. Mr. Landry is more personality than actor (no bad thing in a clown); still, he could pick up pointers on voice and movement from Charlie Fineran (the S-shaped Estelle) and Walter McLean (the blackmailing Shamus) and – on the flip side – poise and subtlety from Dash Vata and Richard Buckely, who truly astonish as the smoldering Dr. Prynne and the pinch-faced Nurse Proctor. Indeed, the hawklike, raven-haired Mr. Vata is so much the Victorian icon that someone must/should whip up a passionate vehicle for him – THE BITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND? YES, MINISTER ABBY? WITHERING TIGHTS? THE FRENCH LEFT-HANDED WOMAN?
Granted, Holly is a Victim from Square One and there isn't much for Mr. Landry to do other than suffer (and hit the ground like a 2 x 4); in Act Two, however, he takes back the stage with a knockout rendition of "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and becomes both embodiment and parody of world-weary chanteuses everywhere. Surprisingly, the Mother and Child Reunion is played for pathos – despite all of the above, Mr. Landry clearly loves the Turner film – though I was secretly hoping to see Madame X defended by Clay, Jr. while he is still a child. May Mr. Landry drag on – but may he also transcend the limits he has set for himself: instead of trashing another Universal soap, why not tackle LYSISTRATA or attempt an all-male Shakespeare (mini) production – and grow? He may risk losing his current audience, but he may also gain a bigger box office.
After the last tear has been shed for Madame X and the final beer has been swigged and you file out past the leather jackets and the pool tables (or choose to stay), keep in mind that Christmas is coming, and remember these poor Orphans.