WAY BACK IN AN EARLIER century — I’m talking, like, 1992 — camp was rolling across international stages in frilly dresses, heels and five o’clock shadows. And from an array of male comedians and performance artists who donned wigs, dresses and stoles — Dame Edna, Varla Jean Merman, Jackie Beat, John Fleck, Michael Kearns, Tony Abatemarco and John Epperson — it was in the culture at large. That same year, in Minneapolis, actor-director Danny Schmitz put his hair in pigtails and donned a girl’s smock (and boots) to play Rhoda Penmark, the child murderess at the core of Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed. That production played at Hollywood’s Tamarind Theatre in 1996 to great success, and has returned to the area with the same cast and director at the Lounge Theatre, under the auspices of Buzzworks Theater Company — which Theatre 911 eventually merged into.
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Anderson’s play is an earnest adaptation of William March’s 1954 novel spun from the case of Jane Toppan, a turn-of-the-last-century serial killer whose “not guilty” plea to several counts of first-degree murder was upheld for reasons of insanity. The novel, the play and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 Academy Award–nominated film hone in on the character of Rhoda’s mother, Christine Penmark (here played by Andrea Hutchman), grappling with the dawning reality that her insufferably manipulative daughter (“What would you give me for a basket of kisses?”) may be responsible for the slaying of a neighbor boy who committed the unforgivable crime (according to Rhoda) of winning the school’s penmanship contest. An amateur psychologist, Reginald Tasker (Peter Colburn), wanders through Christine’s Manhattan apartment (here a trashed living room with a Seattle Seahawks poster) giving “Froodean” analyses on the debate over whether behavior is inherited or learned. Somebody once thought all of this contained some good ideas, since the novel was nominated for the 1955 National Book Award. The play also did very well, enjoying a long run on Broadway.
Schmitz’s mockery of both the play and the film is accomplished first by amping up the melodrama and gay innuendos — the film is already a cult classic for much those reasons. His superb ensemble smokes out every idea in a trash-can fire of overacting. Shrink Tasker rolls around the room in a motorized three-wheeler, crashing into the furniture while theorizing. Meanwhile, a Facilitator — the flaming Kyle Blitch in tight, tight gym shorts — gets parked on top of the fridge, throwing down hankies whenever one of the actors deviates from the script. With the exception of a few drama-queen hissy fits, the hanky drops are surprisingly few, revealing the clunky exposition those audiences of yesteryear found perfectly acceptable.
And though the farce is masterfully well tuned, with physical comedy generating paroxysms of laughter, it too feels like a throwback. In an earlier style of comedy that pointed out the inadequacies of anachronistic works Schmitz’s Bad Seed is quite different from comedy that actually snarls, threatens and bites. Its humor is born less from muted anger than from a blend of flippancy and self-satisfaction that was prevalent in the ’90s.
BAD SEED | By MAXWELL ANDERSON | Presented by Buzzworks Theater Company at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through September 23 | (323) 960-5563