Theater Review: “As Bees in Honey Drown” at J City Theater
As Bees In Honey Drown (Above Left to Right: Sandy Cockrell, Jason Guy, Timothy C. Goodwin)
Over the weekend, my cousins Brenda and Nancy were in from Tucson. As usual, they were Broadway-bound: After Midnight, All the Way, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. But for a terrifically fun night of theater — at a fraction of the cost — you need look no further than the western edge of Hamilton Park: J City‘s production of As Bees in Honey Drown.
If you’ve never been to J City Theater, just attending is a big part of the fun. The glow of a neon sign, set back in the middle of a quiet, tree-lined block, beckons you. After descending a small flight of stairs, you enter the performance space beneath St. Michael’s Church. Arrive a bit early to take in the current gallery show by Jersey City’s own Grigory Gurevich; I was very impressed with his ability to jump from style to style with such ease. (This is a perfect fit with this run of As Bees In Honey Drown, as most cast members play multiple roles.)
If you are unfamiliar with the play itself, well, so was I — though I must have walked past the original 1997 Off-Broadway production every single day, right by the Christopher Street PATH station. (I guess I was in a daze on my daily commute.) The playwright is Douglas Carter Beane, perhaps best known for his screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and five Tony nominations including work on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Sister Act, and Xanadu.
Beane’s Drama Desk-nominated As Bees in Honey Drown definitely caught the eye of J City’s Executive Director Clay Cockrell and Artistic Director Sandy Cockrell. The husband-and-wife team first staged the show in 2007 at the Brennan Courthouse, and it has now become their first revival. The readily changeable space at J City’s current home allows for a dynamic theater-in-the-round experience. (OK, OK, it’s a rectangle.) The two halves of the audience face each other, with at least four different sets — also playing multiple roles — always visible in the center. Framing the overall set are graffiti murals created by Mr. MustArt, convincingly placing us in 1990s Manhattan, itself still recovering from a 1980s hangover.
As the play opens, we meet Evan Wyler, novelist and an “overnight” semi-success after 9 years of struggle. My spider-sense tingles whenever a writer writes about a writer (which then makes me a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer), but Beane’s smart script avoids most woe-is-me clichés. Rather, Evan Wyler represents us, the viewers — he is our grounded tour guide in a high-flying, fast-paced life. Wyler is winningly portrayed by Jason Guy, first with an aw-shucks innocence, then with increased panic and intensity as his character is wined, dined, seduced, and deceived.
Doing the seducing is Alexa Vere de Vere, a damaged rock & roll socialite played with verve and worldliness by Sandy Cockrell (who is also the play’s director). Alexa plucks Evan from his simple existence, and we’re off to the races.
As Evan’s world spins more and more out of control, we are introduced to a group of eclectic supporting characters — 10? Maybe more? I lost count! — all performed by three additional cast members. The most prominent is Timothy C. Goodwin as Mike, an artist previously caught in Alexa’s web. Goodwin also portrays an edgy Brit rocker and a hilariously obsequious suit salesman — and he brings wit and likability to each character.
Clay Cockrell gets to be a photographer, an Alexa hanger-on named Sven, and most notably Morris the record executive. Cockrell’s deadpan air of authority is a pleasure to watch. Wendy Weber Eaton is sultry and sassy as a waitress, fellow socialite, executive assistant, and actress — she is a commanding presence. And Sarah Brooke Vanaman plays a violinist, photography assistant, and dancer, and is equally able to be youthful and exuberant in one scene and austere in the next.
As Bees in Honey Drown is a very funny play, with rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of films of the 1940s. But there’s more than comedy here: It’s a tale of blind ambition, celebrity worship, compromises made too readily, and our desperate need to reinvent ourselves. In Hedwig (another Off-Broadway success of the late 1990s), that reinvention is a celebration of our true selves, but in this play it’s an indictment. We want to escape, because we’re ashamed of who we are. Spoiler alert: That is not the path to happiness.
Crisply directed and energetically performed, As Bees in Honey Drown at J City Theater gives us something to think about, and a whole lot of reasons to laugh. Let’s hope they do another revival the next time my cousins are in town.
Photo by Niyant Dala
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