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A CurtainUp Review
My Deah

The mind of a beauty queen is a thing to fear.— the beauty queen My Deah's cronies.

Nancy Opel &  Maxwell Caulfield
Nancy Opel & Maxwell Caulfield (Photo: Kim T. Sharp)
From the start, the audience at the June Havoc Theatre clearly was anticipating outlandish fun at My Deah, and that is exactly what it got. This classical spoof which contemporizes Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Medea is amazingly faithful to the core of the original story in which a woman takes revenge on her philandering husband. However, given the high camp nature of the high jinks at hand, one might have hoped for casting on the order of Charles Busch or, some years ago, the late Charles Ludlam, both of whom apparently have influenced adaptor John Epperson. Epperson himself, who has made a considerable performing career out of his female alter ego, well known to most of the audience as Lypsinka, would have been the first choice in many minds.

That is not to deny that the versatile and game Nancy Opel is totally delightful in the title role of "the proudest ex-beauty queen" ever known in Jackson, Mississippi, although, our heroine is perceived as a clear interloper, coming from Louisiana across the state line. When her mettle is tested, we know that she is deadly serious telling us "I don’t need rage therapy!" There is, however, nothing whatsoever serious at hand for the audience. Although My Deah Hedgepeth’s entrance is deliberately delayed, the appearance of Ms. Opel is not, as she also opens the play as, Lillie V, the slovenly but perspicacious faithful housekeeper to the household. This character, homely in every sense of the word, plays rather like the porter in Macbeth and is in effect the chief voice delivered directly to the audience. My Deah, by contrast the resident glamour icon, having married a socially positioned hunky former football star, herself is the center of local curiosity, and the neighborhood’s chief gossips regularly appear in search of the latest dish, usually with the excuse of a weekly bridge session. They reflect a thankfully dying breed of women who have nothing better to do but babble about someone else’s business.

While the production unexpectedly eschews cross-dressing in the central role, it employs males for each of the three harpies who contribute to My Deah’s card game. Kevin Townley and Geoffrey Molloy, both of whom also have frequent costume changes in order to also portray the star’s two insipid sons, Scooter and Skipper (perhaps the most inept footballers ever groomed in the south or elsewhere), have considerably more fun as the mannish pant-suited Myra Loy Seabrook and the tightly-laced censorious minister’s wife Brooksie Jones. Anticipating My Deah’s grand entrance, they warn us that "The mind of a beauty queen is a thing to fear." A portentous proclamation indeed. Rounding out the jokey female impersonator trio, as Dixie dowager Mignon Mullen, is Jay Rogers, a grand master of the double take and slow burn, whose career has had numerous previous associations with director Mark Waldrop. In fact, Waldrop’s direction is a key asset here, bringing Epperson’s efficiently lean and very funny script to substantial payoff. Seemingly musty lines such as "you syphilitic old octoroon" get dead-on comic delivery, and visual images such as a one-armed old guard southern governor with a stub of a cigar in his mouth go a long way to providing the requisite cartoon atmosphere. The role is played to perfection by Peter Brouwer. A riotous visual joke is rendered from imaginative staging around the city name of Baton Rouge, and that’s one I certainly won’t spoil for anyone.

Other roles also are well cast, including Michael Hunsaker as a glowing narcissistic yet sexually unrealized football coach, and Lori Gardner as the empty-headed libido-driven young thing (aptly dubbed Simplicity) who has caught the eye of My Deah’s spouse. Not to be forgotten, for certain, in that role of said wandering husband Gator Hedgepeth (yes, it’s Jason in the Greek) is a now head-shaved Maxwell Caulfield, still an impressive figure in middle age. He brings a formidable sense of humor and stage presence to a role often lost in the woodwork. For those who care, yes, he does lengthily bare his chest, which more than passes inspection.

Epperson’s secondary mission seems to prioritize a winking tribute to all of southern literature, with an especially generous recognition to the canon of Tennessee Williams. Those familiar with his plays will have an extra measure of fun noticing the Williams allusions generously sprinkled through the script including, for example, the “Sebastian Venable Military Academy” and a delayed reaction joke employing his currently revived title, Suddenly Last Summer. Original source Euripides is not ignored either, so look for a joke of the groan variety inspired by that antiquated thespian’s name.

The physical production is smart and efficient, with especially felicitous costumes by Romona Ponce. Mark Simpson’s unit set of the entrance to Whitfield, the Hedgepeth estate, has appropriate suggestions of southern splendor to indicate grandiose architecture surrounded by hanging moss. Such lush environment is exactly the requisite setting of excess for this tongue-in-cheek revisit to a favorite theatrical demon.

Playwright: John Epperson
Directed by Mark Waldrop
Cast: Nancy Opel (Lillie V./My Deah Hedgepeth), Maxwell Caulfield (Gator Hedgepeth), Peter Brouwer (Governor W. J. Bullard/Rufus Lacy), Lori Gardner (Simplicity Bullard), Michael Hunsaker (Coach), Geoffrey Molloy (Brooksie Jones/Skipper), Jay Rogers (Mignon Mullen) and Kevin Townley (Myrna Loy Seabrook/Scooter).
Sets and lighting: Mark Simpson
Costumes: Ramona Ponce
Sound: Matt Berman
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without an intermission
June Havoc Theater, Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, Manhattan; (212) 868-4444.
Form October 13 to November 12, 2006—extended to November 26th; opening October 24.
Tues to Sat 7:30pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on October 21st performance

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