All Partied Out

The Wild Party, Andrew Lippa’s Jazz Age musical about vaudeville dancer Queenie’s plan to publicly humiliate her lover Burrs at a party, is based on Joseph Moncure March’s poem of the same name, which is itself based on film star Fatty Arbuckle’s violent incident with young actress Virginia Rappe during a particularly scandalous party. With so much blood and tawdriness as its inspiration, you’d think The Wild Party would celebrate the ugly side of humanity; it definitely doesn’t shy away from sin and vice and everything nice, but there’s a morality at the center of the play shining out from beneath the filth.

Queenie (Margeau Baue Steinau) is an inveterate temptress who revels in her power over men and likes rough sex. But when Burrs’ sexually assaults her in a fit of pique, he’s gone too far; she can’t control him anymore, so she hatches her plan to embarrass him before all their friends. It’s a way to regain some of the power, and it will be fun. Steinau has the right look and a compelling voice, but most of the character is conveyed through her sultry walk and posture. You know when Queenie is on stage because you can’t take your eyes off her.

Jeffrey Pruett makes Burrs into a believable, flawed monster. Slouching around with a bottle in hand, bellowing at Queenie, his guests and the world with unrestrained bitterness, Burrs would be easy to dismiss as a one-note character were it not for Pruett’s nuanced characterization. In the duet “What Is It About Her?,” Queenie and Burrs address the obvious question of why they’re together. Queenie was attracted to his kindness and his primal vitality at one point, but those days are gone. Burrs remains with Queenie because she’s his; there’s a yawning maw inside him that devours everything in his life and yet he craves more. Pruett’s agonized face reveals the depths of Burrs’ horror at what he’s doing to himself and to Queenie, and that he knows full well he can’t stop it. Burrs is truly pathetic, by every sense of the word, and Pruett shows you every meaning before the show is done.

As you might imagine with such hosts, Queenie and Burrs’ party gets out of hand. Queenie’s rival Kate (Deborah Sharn) arrives with handsome Mr. Black (Keith Parker), and while Kate lustily harries Burrs, Black and Queenie begin their own flirtation. Sharn plays Kate as the Jazz Age’s Whore of Babylon, as dangerous a predator as Burrs himself. Black is a shockingly sober, contemplative young man -- why he’s with Kate is as much a mystery as composer Lippa’s decision to give him “I’ll Be Here,” one of those soaring Broadway power ballads that didn’t exist in the 1920s. Parker has a great voice, and he sings the hell out of the song, but it’s a dud nonetheless and as mood-busting as if he’d started beatboxing. “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” a raunchy and hysterical ode to the joys of lesbianism sung by Madelaine True (the fantastic Nikki Glenn), and “Two of a Kind,” a sweet duet about a straighter kind of love performed by Eddie (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Mae (Emily Berry) are so good and era-appropriate they make up for that misstep, however.

Eddie and Mae’s genuine love and Madelaine’s lust for life are proof that the world Queenie and Burrs inhabit is not entirely debauched. There is kindness and optimism in their shared circle of friends, and Queenie and Burrs had it once as well. By the end of the night, Queenie wonders how everything ended so poorly between her and Burrs; how did ugliness supplant their love? When was the first unkind word spoken? When was the first blow struck? When did it all turn to shit? These are the questions not just of a failed relationship, but of the end of any gilded age. The Wild Party shows you in lurid detail the dying moments of just such a relationship and an age, and it’s difficult if not impossible to ask the same questions of the first decade of the 21st century when the lights come back up.

Presented by New Line Theatre at the Washington University South Campus Theatre (6501 Clayton Road; 314-534-1111 or at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (April 22 through May 15). Tickets are $10 to $20.
Thursdays-Saturdays. Starts: April 30. Continues through May 15, 2010

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