There's a curse on Christopher Wynn's new play. Four of the show's seven cast members suffered physical injuries during rehearsal; one of the principals broke the heel off her go-go boot; and, initially, audiences for Bring Me the Head of Jayne Mansfield!, though enthusiastic, were frighteningly small.
"Jayne herself has placed a curse on our production," quips actor Neil Cohen, who plays evil Nurse Connie in this kooky campathon. "She was a devil worshiper, you know."
Not even the wrath of a dead film actress can dissuade Wynn, a former Phoenix actor who moved to Manhattan a few years ago to produce plays (he's responsible for the off-Broadway hit The Seductive Art of Becoming God and Famous, which he debuted here last year). "I don't care if the house burns down, we're going on," he says. "Twice on Saturdays." The show, written in a huddle by Wynn, Cohen and playwright Doug Cooney, is an amalgam of cheapjack movie references and plot lines from pulpy preteen nursing novels of the '50s and '60s.
"I went with the idea that this is what a late-'60s Russ Meyer movie starring Joan Crawford would look like," Wynn says. "Then we threw in every camp reference that would fit." Those include a couple of go-go numbers, several dozen cheap wigs, and a hysterical ballet homage to the final scene in William Castle's ax-murder epic Strait Jacket.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a carnival queen whose headline side-show attraction may or may not be the bean of buxom B-movie maven Jayne Mansfield, who was decapitated in a fatal automobile accident in 1967. When the precious noggin vanishes, all heck breaks loose. The show shimmies between horror spoof and horrid spoof, but the frantic pace and endless references to cheesy horror flicks keep things moving.
Wynn plays the Crawfordesque Cherry Vail, a student nurse on the lam after blowing up her junior college lab partner. In a teeny nurse's uniform and a pound and a half of Max Factor number nine, the six-foot-six Wynn is truly frightening--a sort of Baby Jane-meets-Joe Montana heroine for the hip set.
Despite Wynn's garish get-up and scene-stealing talents, most of the big yuks go to Cohen, who's better known as the author and star of the manic Murder by Proxy, a dinner-theater show that ran for years in Phoenix. Bring Me the Head is not so much theater as a theatrical homage to sleazy cinema, aimed at fans of terrible movie dialogue.
Whatever you call it, the show is playing to growing crowds. "I think our audience has found us," Cohen says, admitting it's "sort of gratifying" to play to a house full of people who recognize lines from Satan in High Heels, but he's quick to claim that audiences needn't be familiar with the Herschel Gordon Lewis canon in order to appreciate the show.
"We don't expect people to pick out the references to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. That one doesn't make it into many film-studies classes these days," Cohen muses.
"This is the post-PC version of shows that were hot in the early '90s," Wynn says, "before we all became so self-conscious about liking theater that starred men in dresses singing about pill-popping and big-busted lesbian carnival-strippers on the run."
Final performances of Bring Me the Head of Jayne Mansfield! are at 8 p.m. Friday, May 29; 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday, May 30; and 7 p.m. Sunday, May 31, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell.
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