IF JOHN GUARE'S "Landscape of the Body" were to be boiled down to a jingle, it would be "I Loathe New York." Or maybe, "Take a Walk on the Vile Side."
Studio's revival of Guare's 1977 Gotham gothic is really two plays in one -- a murder mystery and a musical melodrama. Though it gets some fresh design touches from director Jim Nicola and designer Russell Metheny, the two forms don't mesh in this overlong and often unpleasant trip down a dark, dead-end street.
Guare moves us backward and forward in time, providing puzzle pieces sparingly till we've returned full circle to the opening scene: Betty sitting on a ferry, tossing note- filled bottles overboard. Flash back, and Betty is being interrogated by an overanxious cop about the grisly murder by decapitation of her teenage son Bert.
It seems the (relatively) fresh-faced Betty arrived with her teenage son from Bangor, Maine, to visit her bad-girl sister Rosalie, who was soon killed by a bicyclist (who then plundered her purse to pay for the damage to his bike). Betty assumes her sister's lifestyle, clothes and persona. Soon she and Bert are sucked into the morass of the mean streets -- he's a teenage thug, mugging homosexuals with a monkey-wrench-wielding pal; she's making porno movies and working a travel agency scam. When she goes away for a weekend, she returns to find herself suspected of his murder.
Our guide through the past is the late Rosalie, who watches from the sidelines and breaks the action to sing an ironic pop ditty or two. But as Rosalie says, "the mystery's always greater than the solution," and once we know whodunit, this "Landscape" painted with slashes of midnight black humor and some arresting verbal and visual images, dissolves into an improbable romance and a mealy-mouthful of mystic mumbo-jumbo.
Metheny has given his set a seamy city look, stripping the Studio down to the warehouse it once was, adding a touch of the surreal by suspending mannequin parts overhead. Lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner works from a palette of lurid reds and harsh whites, adding strobe flickers for flashbacks and a diagonal strip of descending blue fluorescent lights to suggest the sea.
In lethal-looking stiletto heels and a hard, forbidding made-up mask of a face, Annette Held is convincing and affecting as Betty. Recently departed Rosalie is played by nightclub singer Katha Kissman, who makes a lively corpse but is sadly saddled with belting Mark Novak's toneless tunes at an unpleasant volume. Michael Wells is funny and fine as tender-tough Bert, and Tami Tappan is a shiny penny in the gutter as Bert's gum-snapping girlfriend Joanne, a morbid Madonna-wannabe fascinated with tabloid tales of bizarre deaths.
LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY -- At the Studio Theater through February 9.