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Devil Boys From Beyond

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Berliner, Chris Dell'Armo, and Paul Pecorino.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You might not think twice about camping in November if an actual tent were involved, but New York is offering two extremely compelling reasons for pursuing the theatrical kind. The first is Charles Busch's The Divine Sister, which opened in September has no end of fun poking at nun movies. The second, which just opened at New World Stages, is every bit as good, if aimed at those with slightly less than wholly refined cinematic tastes: Devil Boys From Beyond.

No, this isn't exactly a gay Russ Meyer knock-off—think of it more as an Ed Wood film that's cross-dressing every bit as much as Wood himself did. Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliott's hilarious play spoofs and stamps all over most of Wood's early canon: the SF "classics" like Plan Nine From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster, to be sure, but also his more, uh, mainstream endeavors like Jail Bait and Glen or Glenda. Sci-fi pulp and sexual and/or criminal melodrama are such a natural pairing, one can only wonder why don't see them more often.

Chances are we can expect a moratorium on any others for at least a while longer—living up to this one will be a definite challenge. Blending the soap-operatic romance of hard-boiled reporter Mattie Van Buren (Paul Pecorino) and alcoholic photographer Gregory Graham (Robert Berliner) with their investigation of a series of dastardly disappearances in Lizard Lick, Florida, allows for an avalanche of tropes that—try as they might—never get old.

Take Mattie and Gregory's driving plotlines. Their jobs at the Bugle are on the line due to the declining economy—their boss, Gilbert Wiatt, played with terrific newsprint-scented bluster by Peter Cormican, laments, "By the end of 1957 there may only be eight dailies left in New York City"—and Gregory is still trying to get back in Mattie's good graces after they divorced following his torrid tryst with the Bugle's aging gossip hound, Lucinda Marsh (Chris Dell'Armo). When the pair traipses off to Florida in pursuit of their surefire scoop, Lucinda isn't far behind, bringing with her the stolen alien fetus Gilbert received as anonymous proof that things in Lizard Lick are not as they appear.

Jeff Riberdy and Everett Quinton.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Once they all arrive in the minuscule town, they discover that all the old, fat, balding men have vanished and been replaced by far younger and sexier specimens. Florence Wexler (Everett Quinton), apparently the only eyewitness to the alleged UFO arrival that preceded the men's disappearance, has nabbed herself one she's particularly fond of (Jeff Riberdy), and who she insists is her husband. Dotty Primrose (Andy Halliday), the owner of the only motel in town, swears the same thing about her "husband," Jack (Jacques Mitchell). What, wonder Mattie and Gregory, on Earth—or above Earth—is going on?

What indeed. To reveal too many more details would spoil a dazzlingly brief evening (scarcely 80 minutes) that thrives on them, but alien attacks, extraterrestrial impregnations, Mattie and Lucinda's teeming jealousies and tangled backgrounds, and even a go-get-‘em musical number for Mattie (which Pecorino sells with uncommon flair) all play critical roles. And even if it weren't packed with absurdities, Thomas and Elliott's story is a substantial one, and even bearing a thoughtful message for our times. (No, seriously.)

But it's the execution that matters most, and it's top-notch. Elliott has directed with razor sharpness, never losing either a laugh or a narrative thread (however thin) that's presented to him. The design is modest, but B.T. Whitehill's comic-book backdrop, Gail Baldoni's glimmeringly silly costumes (augmented by Gerard Kelly's impeccably chosen wigs for the women characters), Vivien Leone's moody lights, and Drew Fornarola's evocative Z-movie-style score establish an appropriately seamy flavor for this show's anything-can-happen world.

The performances are outstanding across the board, with Pecorino a particular standout as he flips effortlessly between the emotionally battered "other woman" and the put-upon heroine unwittingly tasked with saving Earth. Berliner's stuffed-mouth portrayal of Gregory is just right for a reluctant man in the middle, and Dell'Armo is an acidic delight as the scheming Lucinda. Quinton, a Ridiculous Theatrical Company veteran who knows this kind of humor better than anyone, is predictable perfection as Florence, and delivers a hysterical curtain-raising recitation of her close encounter that immediately fixes her and everything around her within the firmest sector of improbability.

Devil Boys From Beyond was a major hit at the 2009 Fringe Festival, which is where I first encountered it. I couldn't detect any significant differences between that production in the West Village and this one; even the cast is, to a man, identical. The show's future, then, would seem to hinge on whether uptown audiences will buy its gleefully downtown vibe—something Busch avoids by keeping his Golden Age Hollywood send-up safely anchored in SoHo. Whether this show will succeed as well in the heart of the Theatre District is anyone's guess, but it will roughly triple the area's laugh quotient for as long as it's able to camp out.

Devil Boys From Beyond
Through January 2
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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