In 1928, after trying for two years, an obscure young New York poet named Joseph Moncure March finally published to scandalous acclaim "The Wild Party," a long, seamy narrative verse about a trampy showgirl and her ex-jailbird boyfriend. The tale--featuring sex, violence and a supporting cast of gin-soaked molls and punks--pulsates with vulgar energy and wit.
Studio Theatre Secondstage's Keith Alan Baker, who won a Helen Hayes Award last year for his inspired production of "Hair," has used March's lurid rhyme as the basis for, as it's called, a "conceptual piece" about the Jazz Age. Essentially this is a performed poem intermittently larded with song, dance, busker routines and vaudevillian bits. There are some nice moments, but ultimately Baker's version of "The Wild Party," which opened last weekend, is an ungainly mix that all but extinguishes the vibrantly trashy spirit of the original. It's a dirty joke with all the best expletives deleted.
Queenie (Janet Pryce) and Burrs (Joe Wildermuth), perpetually on the outs, throw a party, to which they invite all their pals--hustlers and predators of all stripes, all stunningly decked out in period glad rags (take a bow, designer Edu Bernardino). The main action turns around Queenie's seducing the date, Mr. Black (Scott Griswold), brought by her "best friend," Kate (Melanie Tatum), who takes Burrs to bed in reply. And not because turnabout is fair play: For soul-dead Kate, it's as if someone just beat her to a taxi, so she just takes the next one she sees. Add some tawdry subplots involving other guests and you have a good view of American amorality, circa 1920.
Baker, who also directs, presents the above like a vaudeville show, complete with a natty emcee for a narrator (John Tweel) and a vaudeville stage for a set (by Giorgos Tsappas). Tweel more or less gives a wry, dramatic reading of the poem, which the company acts out rather, well, wryly. Some scenes, like the lovers' spat between a homosexual couple, are wonderfully mean and lowbrow, and the singing and dancing (courtesy of choreographer Robert Biedermann) occasionally liven things up.
But the added routines--juggling and magic tricks primarily--lighten things up. And that lightness of spirit infects the story, effectively taming the wildness--i.e., the life--right out of the party. (Even the sex scenes feel flat and calculated.) It also separates you from the narrative right when you're starting to be pulled in by it. Which may well be Baker's intent--this is, after all, about not just the poem but the era that produced it. But he ends up with a disjointed variety show that has less to do with the Roaring Twenties than with his romanticized view of it.
A big, buxom blonde, Pryce certainly looks like Queenie, and she can play gentleness and vulnerability and make it look easy. But Queenie is only gentle and vulnerable if she thinks it will get her what she wants, and Pryce never really shows us any convincing cunning or guile. (Possibly her director didn't want her to: It might not fit with the next juggling bit.) Wildermuth's Burrs just broods a lot. The best work comes from Tatum, whose Kate is a tragic case of opportunism undermined by booze and lust, and from Griswold, whose Mr. Black is a great example of vanity and gullibility happily coexisting in the same heart.
Notable performances among the ensemble come from Hilary Kacser, Sean Ewert, Yuval Cohen, Daniel Wolfson, Cassie Tietgen and Sheira Venetianer. Unfortunately each has only fragments of scenes in a much-too-fragmented show.
The Wild Party, conceived by Keith Alan Baker and based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Choreography, Robert Biedermann; lighting, Eric Schoenberger. Through Aug. 8 at Studio Theatre Secondstage. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: "The Wild Party" at Studio Theatre's Secondstage isn't nearly wild enough.