A couple of years ago, I came across a copy of A History of the American Film tucked away indifferently in the Cinema Studies section of a Durham used-book shop. It was not, as the literal-minded filer had assumed, a stuffy tome on cinematic achievements over the years, but, rather, a play — a spoofy, goofy play at that, scampering over some of the pulverized screen clichés we grew up on. Broadway audiences were also thrown by the title, and History was history in 21 performances, but it launched one of our sharpest stage satirists: Christopher Durang, newly turned 58 and still Peck's Bad Boy of comedy.
Most of his yuks were earned Off-Broadway — over real-world issues and situations, stretched to comic proportions — in a run of Obie winners like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Betty's Summer Vacation, and, if he drops a movie reference, he drops it and runs and lets you find it for yourself.
But his new antic, bowing at 59E59 Theaters, returns him to a major tributary of American film. Adrift in Macao, presented by Primary Stages, is a riff on noirish melodramas that populated the screen of the late 40's/early 50's, when fog, intrigue and sexual steam obscured backlot schlock.
The plot came to him like a haunting refrain — exactly like, in fact. "Over the years, I've been approached by young composers to do books for their musicals," he says, "and I turn them down. I have very old-fashioned tastes in musical comedy because of my age and going as a child to Broadway musicals. The less melodic music just isn't to my taste. "The composer, Peter Melnick, whom I didn't know, called me up about doing a show, and I said to him, just in case he was terribly experimental or something, 'Y'know, I think I should warn you I have very old-fashioned taste — Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Hart — and my plays need pastiche more than new sounds.' And Peter said, 'Well, I think it would be disingenuous if I didn't tell you that I'm Richard Rodgers's other grandson.' That's how he put it because Adam Guettel is much better known. So I laughed and thought, 'Well, what a fortuitous thing! I just listed his grandfather twice.'"
Melnick sent tapes, and one melody in particular — called "Time," written for an independent film — struck a responsive gong with Durang. "It was a very beautiful and smoky sound, and it made me think of a nightclub for some reason. Then, I got to thinking about my fondness for old movies with those nightclubs. I don't know if they ever existed, even in the 30's, those nightclubs they had in the movies. They just seemed so glamorous, and these women in evening gowns would get up and sing. Sometimes they'd be in the background, other times they'd be in the center of the action. His song made me think of that. Then I also got to thinking about how actresses in movies could always get jobs as singers — never mind how realistic that is, and it doesn't matter how much or how little they sing. So I wanted to have this woman show up in a foreign city, with only the evening gown on her back, and instantly get a job as a nightclub singer."
Thus, Adrift in Macao fades slowly in on a silhouetted chanteuse in purple satin (by Willa Kim), moanin' low "in a foreign city/in a slinky dress…" at Rick's Surf 'n' Turf Nightclub and Gambling Casino. It's one of a dozen or so ditties that dot this 90-minute takeoff — an ambiance-above-all starting point. "McGuffin" (Hitchcock's word for plot device) to follow; as Durang teases it along, this is a hunt for a man named McGuffin, who has pinned a murder rap on our hard-nosed hero, Mitch (Sunset Boulevard's Alan Campbell).
Three members of the show's previous production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company will reprise the performances that won them Barrymore Awards there: Rachel de Benedet, Michele Ragusa and Orville Mendoza. The sexy, sassy de Benedet is the aforementioned satin doll, Lureena, who bumps Corinna (Ragusa) out of the star spot and out of the favored place in the heart of the proprietor, one Rick Shaw (Will Swenson). Mendoza smiles sinisterly, insistently on the sidelines as henchman Tempura. Also repeating: director Sheryl Kaller, music director Fred Lassen, choreographer Christopher Gattelli.
Film buffs will have a field day, fielding the noir nuggets that Durang tosses out. "I do tell people that the parts of film noir that I'm playing with are not the crime parts so much. There are subplots of crime stuff, but I'm more drawn to the glamorous ambiance.
"I really have a fondness for old movies. The comedy comes from enjoying them. Most of my parodies are fond ones. When I wrote my parody of The Glass Menagerie — called For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls — it got nice reviews, but I was so pleased when critics would refer to it as 'an affectionate parody.' As a matter of fact, that Tennessee Williams group in New Orleans invited me to go there when they did the play and I was thrilled because it also meant they found it was affectionate. I actually adore Tennessee's work."
Love finds Peck's Bad Boy — and, in Adrift in Macao, it comes out mischievously funny.