Sweet Talker

Rep director Steve Woolf relishes bringing the character of the seductive Alexa Vere de Vere to life in a new production of As Bees in Honey Drown

Sitting and rereading Douglas Carter Beane's smart and piercing comedy As Bees in Honey Drown, two memories from college classrooms emerged. First, as an undergraduate, I witnessed perhaps the longest and most extended (weeks, really) argument over a professor's unshakable belief that, unless you believed that someone else would eventually read your writing, it is absolutely impossible to write. High-and-mighty room of one's own thoughts aside, at the core of every creative act, he argued, there is alongside it a human hunger for communication and recognition. They are, in fact, inseparable, nonexisting without each other, and you cannot create in a vacuum. In other words, art reflects need.

Many years later, a student of my own turned in a final-exam essay that veered away from the question and became a blistering attack on the "cultural elete." These people, the student wrote, lived in New York, hung out in coffee bars and were soulless pagans whose influence on the arts, media and sitcoms were leading the nation away from its moral purpose and path. "They" had no real purpose other than to create art that made them celebrities and fed their egos. Indeed, their influence and hunger for superficial trends had distracted us all from creating and recognizing true works of art, works that contained traditional elements of virtue, harmony and faith. (For the record, the essay got a B. It might have gotten a B+, had it not been for "elete." If you're going to attack, know how to spell the enemy's name.)

Had my professor and my student watched As Bees in Honey Drown together, they would have laughed a lot and perhaps have adjusted their positions. An expertly crafted tale that verges on blistering expose, Bees is a comedy walking on the highest arches to smartly reveal the deeply human nature of creation and re-creation. Writer Carter Beane, whose screenwriting credits include To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, takes the hunger for artistic and personal creation to its most hilarious and ugly ends yet ultimately creates a statement that affirms need, the artistic act and the occasionally holy union of the two in people whose lives become enmeshed in monitoring "the new becoming old almost before the newer new." In a time of a neatly wrapped-up, 22-minute sitcom, comedic writing doesn't come any sharper or more complex than Bees. The play opens March 24 for previews in the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, begins its run on March 26 and continues through April 18 in a production directed by Rep artistic director Steven Woolf.

Like most comedies, the less you know going into it the better, so here's the briefest outline. Emerging writer Evan Wyler has just had his first novel published and is summoned to a power lunch at New York's Paramount Hotel ("not so much a lobby as a lobby as told to Theodore Geisel") by Alexa Vere de Vere, the alluring, mysterious and completely Auntie Mame-esque record producer looking for someone to write a screenplay based on "the story of my life, which is too entrancing, almost even for me." Evan succumbs to her charms and hefty financial offer, and almost instantly she whisks him into the highest echelons of New York cognoscenti -- a world where every party guest is a brand name and every event -- lunch, dinner, shopping -- becomes a mini-journey-to-Oz. Evan's efforts to write about Alexa's life leads to surprising comic and personal ends.

For the audience, the key to the play is Alexa. An amalgamation of every exaggerated female icon -- Bette, Rosalind, Liza -- Alexa's allure to Evan isn't based on just style, flash and sizzle, although she practically gives the audience a milk bath in all that. Her seductiveness addresses a need that underlies the play's aspiration. Creating Alexa onstage (she's played here by Carolyn Swift, excellent in last year's Betrayal) was why Woolf wanted to direct the play himself. "She is so amazing -- the twists and turns, it's just fascinating," says Woolf in a meeting after he has finished blocking the play's second act. "She's shallow, but she's got street smarts, and she's looked at the world, studied what's out there and figured out how to make it work for her. Even though you're horrified by some of the things she does, you can't help rooting for her. She's amoral -- which is why we laugh -- but her tenacity is something we can't help admiring. It's in us, in our culture, to admire people who get what they want.

"Even though it's a comedy, Alexa's story, and its power over Evan, gives the play its shape as a morality tale," he continues. "She lives in a world where everyone's afraid not to be a player, someone who's in the magazines, at the parties, going to Europe in just the right seasons. What she shows us is how to manufacture this presence, this ephemeral confection, in a very, very theatrical way. Then we see the price you pay for this manufacturing."

Woolf acknowledges that this sort of hunger, to always be on the cutting edge of the newest, the best, the fastest, is the uber-fuel of Manhattan but not necessarily St. Louis. "I think it translates into something different here," he says, "but it comes from the same need. Here there are orbits to play in, people to know that can set you apart from the rest, and clearly there are people who hunger for this. St. Louis is a big restaurant town, and a new restaurant can become hot quite quickly, and suddenly it's imperative to be seen there and then to mention that you've been. Sometimes the food is the last thing mentioned."

The play's ultimate irony is that it seduces its audience with the same sort of glamour, pace and style that Alexa uses on Evan. Written in a style more akin to a screenplay, Bees switches locations, times and places in a heartbeat. It is stuffed with references to artists, places, fashion designers, writers and products that are smart and knowing, and just when you think Alexa is making sense, she rushes off on another alluring tangent that makes you forget that the previous thought was perhaps just mirrors. She, of course, uses bangles instead of smoke. As with Alexa's friends, the play tends to, as Woolf puts it, "steal a bit of the soul."

"It's not often that we meet someone who has the power to change people's lives and destinies, but Alexa Vere de Vere does," he says. "She takes the hunger that we all have to be fabulous, flawless, and turns it into fuel that propels one into another orbit. Of course, how real this is and the effects of such speed are what the play is about. But, as Alexa says, it is 'fabulous -- and I never use that word.

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