Nearly Naked Theatre delivers sweet relief with As Bees in Honey Drown

Here's a one-word review of Nearly Naked Theatre's production of As Bees in Honey Drown:


And here's a 601-word one:

What a relief it was to attend a show at Nearly Naked, one of my favorite theater companies, that I enjoyed nearly as much as I've enjoyed so many of their previous productions. I'd worried that this troupe, known locally for taking big risks with difficult properties, was slipping. I didn't love the company's Night of the Iguana, and was very sorry not to have fallen for their recent and much-touted Metamorphoses, which audiences and other critics liked so much more than I.

The Nearly Naked folks have redeemed themselves by taking a tough piece by Douglas Carter Beane (best known for his To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and his 2007 Tony-nominated The Little Dog Laughed) and turning it into an accessible romp that coasts on acting talent and never glosses over Beane's bigger messages about identity and the way that people see themselves.

As Bees in Honey Drown is set in New York, where Alexa Vere de Vere (Shannon Whirry) has just made her latest discovery: Evan Wyler (Adam Solon), a starving young novelist whose shirtless photo Alexa admires in a magazine. She, an apparently affluent record producer, hires Wyler, whose first novel has just been published, to write the screenplay of her life. The two begin a peculiar romance — he's gay and afraid of love; she's a bit older than he and clearly a nutcake — and to say more would give away the many charming twists and turns of Beane's engaging story.

I suspect the reason Nearly Naked artistic director Damon Dering booked this play is so that he could watch the amazing Miss Whirry play Alexa. I might have been more wowed by Whirry's performance if I hadn't seen her playing a similarly over-the-top Madame Rosepettle in a recent production of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, but it was still impossible to look away from her galvanized reading of this shocking charlatan. Alexa is a woman made up entirely of false notes; she doesn't speak so much as screech extravagantly. Whirry makes no attempt to play Alexa as anything other than a larger-than-life caricature, shrieking her lines and bugging out her eyes and waving a colossal cigarette extension like mad. And when Whirry turns up as another version of Alexa late in the story, the transformation is proof, if one needed any, that this is an actress with an appreciable range. Her performance is masterful, and even if it weren't, she'd deserve accolades for her stunning and all-too-brief impersonation of Audrey Hepburn, and for the way in which she simulates disappearing into an elevator shaft.

Also magnificent is young Adam Solon, who does the unthinkable here: He keeps up with Whirry's gargantuan presence with the perfect combination of naiveté and charm. Solon never strikes an untrue note, and provides the perfect contrast for Alexa's huge aplomb.

These performances, augmented by several others from a chorus of supporting players, take place on a cunning set designed by David Weiss, who's cast the Manhattan skyline as a jumble of skyscrapers and brightly hued geometric boxes. Director Ron May fuses short, sharp scenes and long, breakneck monologues into one seamless piece that I wanted never to end. When it eventually did, I had been thoroughly entertained.

In his curtain speech, Dering seemed surprised to be announcing the company's upcoming 10th season. But anyone who has witnessed much of what this company has wrought in the past decade, with very few exceptions, can only be grateful that they've survived a few bumps and are still here.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela