Entertainment » Theatre

As Bees in Honey Drown

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 17, 2010
Mike Manship and Jenny Gutbezahl star in As Bees in Honey Drown, playing through Aug. 21 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts
Mike Manship and Jenny Gutbezahl star in As Bees in Honey Drown, playing through Aug. 21 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts  (Source:Flat Earth Theatre)

Seduction and revenge: such are the contrasting themes of Douglas Carter Beane's 1997 play As Bees in Honey Drown, continuing through Aug. 21 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Flat Earth Theatre's production of the play is nimble and articulate. The first scene sets the tone, as newly minted novelist Evan Wyler (a pen name; his real name is Wohlenstein, and this is merely the first volley in the play's meditations on surface versus substance, and identity versus character) poses for a magazine photographer. In order to convince readers that Wyler's novel is hot, the photographer reasons, he has to show readers that Wyler himself is hot; "So lose the shirt," the photographer orders the shy, homosexual writer, who is played by actor Mike Manship.

Wyler's new celebrity attracts the attention of charming, rich record producer Alexa Vere de Vere (Jenny Gutbezahl), who dazzles Wyler with a thick wad of cash and makes him over in short order. Nattily attired in a new suit, Wyler tipsily waves goodbye to his "old self," as embodied in a bag holding his former wardrobe. Sex and love and betrayal ensue.

As it turns out, Alexa is not the fabulous, fluttery creature of high-flying transactions and exotic life experiences that she purports to be. When she abruptly disappears, leaving Wyler stuck with a stack of bills, the novelist turns to his notes on her, made when he thought she was to be the subject of his next book. From his notes and memories, Wyler draws thin traces of the truth; following each lead with the persistence of a private eye and his innate, writerly obsessiveness, Wyler finds his way to record executive Morris Kaden (Justus Perry), himself a victim of Alexa's con jobs, who advises Wyler to accept his financial loss as a form of "tuition" to life's university. Kaden still recalls Alexa with affection; she's colorful, and she serves as a rite of passage for those who are just breaking into life in the upper echelons where art and commerce intersect.

But where Kaden is grudgingly affectionate toward Alexa, Wyler is desperately in love--and rather than move on, he digs deeper, finally finding his way to Mike Stabinsky (Andrew McKnight), who proves to be the living bedrock at the bottom of Alexa's fascinating--and fabricated--past. The truth about Alexa is in itself a compelling journey into art and artifice, but it's the truth that Wyler wants, or so he thinks; indeed, in the end it's the truth--hard, cold, and tough to swallow--that sets him free and enables him both to take his revenge and to take control of his life and career.

Beane's script is smart, and so is Flat Earth's treatment of it. Director Jake Scaltreto brings a snappy momentum to the production that recalls 1940s film, and costumer Andrew McKnight echoes that sensibility with attractive (but hardly lavish) outfits. The set, by Nathan Kruback, follows the same spare and imaginative line, characterized by a cardboard cutout city skyline that feels both vintage and timeless.

The actors bring humor and passion to their parts--several parts, in some cases; Perry and McKnight, along with Meredith Robertson and Sarah Kimball, crop up in various guises as an assortment of supporting characters. Gutbezahl, too, plays multiple roles, both as the fantastical creation Alexa--whom one character tellingly refers to as "Confection!" when the word he may have wanted was "Perfection!"--and as a young woman from Pennsylvania whose desire to escape poverty and tedium drove her to assemble the bits of cultural gloss and glitter that would eventually gel into Alexa.

Manship invests Wyler with careful measures of rage and hesitance, glee and disappointment. Alexa takes him in at a glance, declaring at one point, "An emotional cripple! How delightful!" It's true, and yet under her ruthless tutelage, Wyler grows a spine--along with a sense of self. The character starts off as something of a wispy anti-hero: everyone, even the fussy tailor who kits him out with his new suit, talks over him. But as his outrage grows, Wyler takes on solidity. By the play's end, the novelist who took nine years to produce a short debut novel has become a professional storyteller who can crank out a blockbuster on the sheer force of his stinging indignation: a comment on the nature, and the industry, of art if ever there was one.

As Bees in Honey Drown continues through August 21 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.

Tickets cost $15 if purchased in advance, $20 at the door. Students pay $10 at the door with valid ID. August 19th’s performance with be "pay-what you-can" at the door. Tickets available online from Brown Paper Tickets (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/117901), or by calling (800) 838-3006.

Performance schedule: August 19th, 20th, & 21st at 8:00 p.m., and August 15th & 21st at 2:00 p.m.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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