Varla Jean Merman is the drag queen I would most want aboard a marooned space station. She‘s not scary like Lypsinka, brutal like Jackie Beat or — well, British like Eddie Izzard. This self-proclaimed spawn of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine (possibly midwifed by Tennessee Williams) has everything to keep the crew of a runaway shuttle or Mir entertained on its way to oblivion: She can sing, drift into snatches of baroquely narcissistic autobiography, dispense dubious advice to the lovelorn and — perhaps most important — swallow an aerosol can’s worth of processed cheese while singing a parody of ”Dream a Little Dream of Me.“ These are the riches of the mind that never get old, either in deep space or on a stage revisited time after time.
Varla Jean is the creation of Jeffery Roberson, who began performing drag in New Orleans while a college student there in the late 1980s. Varla emerged about half a dozen years ago, and Roberson honed the character into a premier act during his advertising-day-job years in New York at Ogilvy & Mather. He‘s been ensconced in the New York drag hierarchy almost from the get-go, and even toured as the cross-dressing gossip columnist Mary Sunshine in Bob Fosse’s Chicago. Varla Jean has been on loan to L.A. since January, when an extended version of The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman rocked audiences at the Village‘s Renberg Theater in Hollywood. Now she’s appearing in a slightly streamlined production at the Hudson Theater.
Streamlined is the operative word here, for as Varla Jean tells us, she‘s lost 90 pounds through a diet of coffee and red meat. The truth is that Roberson himself has undergone such a weight transformation and looks fantastic as a somewhat hefty, 6-foot-2 incarnation of Ann-Margret or Wynonna Judd. The show’s slight conceit is that Miss Varla, a nightclub singer resplendent in a yellow PVC jump suit (costume designer Philip Heckman‘s rabid creation), has decided she will not entertain tonight, but will educate instead. ”Education is like a drug,“ she announces in her countrified talk-show lilt. ”Not a very good one — kind of like a sedative.“ But sedation is hardly the evening’s prescription, as Varla Jean takes us on a tour of her sordid life, highlighted by parodied songs and funny-bone-whacking videos.
The thing about Varla is that, as she tactfully puts it, she is ”as self-absorbed as a panty liner.“ In her own Copernican view, she is the center of the universe and its suburbs, a view previously expounded upon in her earlier show and CD, Enough About Me: An Unauthorized Autobiography. Everything in life is about ”me me Me ME MEEE!,“ she trills, as though the words were scales. There comes a moment when she tries, a la Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, to share the show‘s focus with the audience by saying the word your, only to choke on this adjective as though it were a cyanide pill. But that’s Varla Jean — the girl can‘t help mistaking her mirror for a shrine.
Such epic vanity has its side effects, one of them being reflexive rudeness. ”Are there any gay men here?“ she asks patronizingly. Then, realizing she may have committed a politically incorrect gaffe, she assures, ”I don’t want to put any labels on you tops and bottoms!“ The show is 90 nonstop minutes of this: cloyingly fake modesty that is momentarily checked by an equally insincere interest in the lives of her audience members, and a trailer-trash persona that continually slips out from behind her cool Manhattanite‘s facade. The patter is broken up by Varla Jean’s wicked parody tunes and four videos featuring the chanteuse. Song highlights include ”If I Could Talk to the Genitals,“ a howlingly witty send-up of ”If I Could Talk to the Animals,“ and pseudo-operatic versions, with original lyrics intact, of the Jefferson Airplane‘s acid anthem ”White Rabbit“ and the Trammps’ ”Disco Inferno“ — both simultaneously stirring and ridiculous in that William-Shatner-taking-himself-seriously vein.
Unlike many shows, drag or otherwise, that aim to be ”multimedia,“ Varla Jean‘s video segments are genuinely off the hook. ”Varla Jeannie,“ for example, is a ripping parody of Christina Aguilera’s MTV hit ”Genie in a Bottle,“ only here the vessel containing our veiled beauty is a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. Videotape‘s realer-than-real, 30-frames-per-second resolution is ideally suited for Varla Jean’s cheesy camp aesthetic, and these interludes, like Roberson‘s writing, comic timing and vocal prowess, showcase a prodigious talent. It’s probably wise of him, though, not to self-direct this orgy of self-absorption, especially since Michael Schiralli is perfect for that job, nudging Varla to be clumsy when Roberson is not, and keeping her from becoming too over-the-top.
I had an eerie sense, while watching Very Worst, that Varla JeanRoberson is a drag-artiste version of Tennessee Williams — or rather, what Williams might have been like if he‘d exorcised his demons through drag instead of drugs and booze. Like Williams, Roberson came of artistic age in New Orleans, then moved to New York. Roberson’s shows contain the ingredients of classic drag comedy: outlandish self-indulgence and self-delusion; obsessions with sex, aging and weight gain; and a fond embrace of obsolete fashion. Enough of these are found in Williams‘ work to suggest some psychic connection. Not to make too much from this, I couldn’t help think of Williams as Varla Jean, in her vaguely cornpone accent, narrating one degrading moment after another from her tormented life. Somewhat tellingly, the video that gets the most laughs, using Kris Kristofferson‘s ”Sunday Mornin’ Comin‘ Down,“ isn’t really the subtlest. Like its source inspiration, the segment is a montage of scenes in which the scents and sounds of the God-fearing straight world collide with the singer‘s hangover haze. Only here Varla Jean is a big, hungry motel slut who wakes up and chews bits of pizza that are stuck in her frizzy red hair (there’s also an ashtray in there) before wandering into town to grab bags of fast food from unwary KFC and Taco Bell customers.
Like Amy Sedaris‘ TV persona Jerri Blank, Varla Jean repels and compels because, on the one hand, she is a pathetic sod whom the rest of the world has kicked into a lonely corner; on the other, she copes with adversity by spoiling herself rotten — gorging on junk food and lording it over people even further down the fast-food chain. Besides reminding us in the audience just how small our own lives are compared to hers, she commits the ultimate sin of show-biz pride by belittling her pianist (and music director), the affable, Roddy McDowall–ish Michael Brill. And not with some lighthearted ribbing, but with a genuinely cruel browbeating that climaxes after a costume change, when Brill resumes his place at the ivories — wearing Varla Jean’s jump suit from the early part of the show. For a long, silent moment Varla Jean contemplates this sorry image, half trying to discern its meaning, half suspecting that this time she‘s gone too far. Then the concern vanishes from her face, and Varla Jean throws herself back into what she does best — her very worst.