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Off Broadway Reviews

Ode to the Wasp Woman

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 10, 2023

Douglas Everett Davis, Payton Georgiana, Sean Young,
and Josh Alscher

Photo by Maria Baranova
Nostalgia and death. That's where fifteen minutes of fame can lead you, at least in Hollywood. And that's exactly what you'll find in the production of Rider McDowell's Ode to the Wasp Woman at the Actors Temple Theatre.

It is a strange Venn diagram that finds commonality between these two seemingly disparate concepts, made even more strange owing to the fact that the four main characters represent actual people, actors in B movies and low-budget television shows from the time when most of the baby boomers in the audience were kids (hence the "nostalgia" part). It's the death part that fills most of the evening, however, and that keeps the mood on the dark side even when things get outlandish enough to evoke a mixture of uncomfortable laughter and gasps.

Ode to the Wasp Woman opens in a funeral parlor. We in the audience are the mourners, walking to our seats in low light accompanied by the sounds of an anguished organ. When the music stops, out steps the quartet of the dead, with voiceover intros to let us know who they are: Carl Switzer (Josh Alscher), best remembered as "Alfalfa" from the Our Gang/The Little Rascals series of short films; Susan Cabot (Sean Young), who played the titular Wasp Woman in the very real 1959 Roger Corman film; George Reeves (Douglas Everett Davis), who starred as Superman on television in the 1950s; and Barbara Payton (Payton Georgiana), whose career included the starring role in yet another B movie, Bride of the Gorilla.

For the next 100 minutes or so we are regaled with tales of the last days of their lives, all of which ended in sad, often violent ways, the stuff of soap operas and the National Enquirer. Regardless, the theme of the overall production keeps coming back to the desperation that eats at all of them, to be remembered and to latch on to that brass ring of the ever-elusive comeback.

What we get here is actually four self-contained plays, each of them focused on one of the characters. Each section of the show has been written and is performed in varying styles, sometimes digging shallowly into psychological profiles; sometimes done like an outlandish Charles Busch production; sometimes reminiscent of Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust." It is quite a compilation in which we never know exactly where we are being led, other than, ultimately, to the sticky end in which the characters find themselves.

The playwright, who also directs, puzzlingly wraps up each of the playlets by having the focal character face the audience and sing a country tune. Of these, the best performance is by Payton Georgiana, who gives us a heartfelt rendition of "Help Me Make it Through the Night," which, at least, fits the last hours of her character's life. The lead performers are aided and abetted by four other actors playing various other quirky roles: Anna Telfer, David Wenzel, Rita Louise, and Jonathan Hartman; the latter is especially effective as Barbara Payton's alcoholic, belligerent, and abusive father.

Ode to the Wasp Woman
Through January 31, 2024
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W 47th Street, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: