Actors' Playhouse Takes On Gross-Out Cult Classic The Toxic Avenger

Kleiner and Cartland: Love is blind.
Kleiner and Cartland: Love is blind.
Alberto Romeu

The Toxic Avenger is one of the greatest bad movies of all time. It's a film best appreciated after hours, in a dorm room, and under the influence of something. It's also the signature title in the durable canon of B-movie distributor Troma — a studio that, among other sundry achievements, gave the world Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The 1984 schlock-fest about a weakling who falls into a tub of toxic sewage and becomes an oozing, renegade superhero is chockablock with gruesome dismemberments, cheaply edited car crashes, and gratuitous sex (there's no other kind in the Troma-verse). Themes of political corruption and ecological destruction lurk around the periphery of this ultraviolent camp. Take from it an environmental consciousness if you must; just don't take your mom to see it.

The Toxic Avenger is now a brand as much as a movie franchise, spanning three sequels, a comic book series, even a children's cartoon. Still, its fifth incarnation as an off-Broadway musical is surprising considering its distinctive trashiness. This is a production more suited to scratchy VHS screenings and red Solo cups than stage lights and theater attire. Troma's other crossover hit, Parker and Stone's Cannibal: The Musical, transitioned effortlessly to the stage; Toxie, as the lead is known by fans, needed a bit more dramaturgical finesse, provided in this case by composer David Bryan (a founding member of Bon Jovi) and writer Joe DiPietro, who collaborated on the Tony-winning Memphis.

The result, at least in its regional theater premiere from Actors' Playhouse, tries too hard to please too many demographics and clearly hasn't found its audience yet, though director David Arisco's industrious production has its slimy green heart in the right place. DiPietro retains the movie's fictional setting of the dystopian dump-town of Tromaville, New Jersey, but slathers the material with a pitiless patina of anti-Joisey humor. He has promoted the film's unassuming hero, Melvin Ferd the Third (Clay Cartland), from a janitor to earth scientist. But Melvin still lives with his nagging mother, finds himself the target of local bullies, and befriends Sarah, a persecuted blind beauty (Julie Kleiner).

The movie's corrupt Mayor Belgoody (Laura Hodos) is given an appreciably larger role in the musical. Learning of Melvin and Sarah's plan to detoxify the city, Belgoody dispatches a pair of thugs to silence Melvin. The plot sends our milquetoast hero straight into a tub of hideous-looking but empowering radioactive sewage, and — voilà — the meek shall save Jersey and win the blind girl's heart.

Though some may see this production as Actors' Playhouse's annual concession to fans of offbeat theater, the problem here is the show's conventionality, not its cult roots. In converting the anarchic source material into a familiarly structured musical comedy, DiPietro, Bryan, and Arisco contaminate (sorry) the story's original inspiration. Yes, the title character gets to disembowel a varmint and tear the heads off anonymous evildoers, but audience-pandering sweetness wins the day. Actors' Playhouse's tone suggests something between Little Shop of Horrors and Beauty and the Beast. This allows for little of the subversion that Toxie die-hards may be expecting. Instead, we get tiresome pop-culture references to the ubiquity of Starbucks and yesteryear's scourge of illegal music downloads. Even an added jab at Donald Trump feels late to the party.

Actors' Playhouse Takes On Gross-Out Cult Classic The Toxic Avenger
Alberto Romeu

So, essentially, this Toxic Avenger has more in common with Actors' Playhouse's last two productions — The Book Club Play and Unnecessary Farce, handsomely staged renditions of serviceable material — than last season's boundary-pushing benchmark Murder Ballad. But there are attributes. Gene Seyffer and Jodi Dellaventura's scenic design is solid. As with Murder Ballad, the designers restructured the upstairs black box of the Miracle Theatre into an intimate three-quarter-thrust arrangement, immersing the audience in a landscape of radioactive decay. An elevated platform is surrounded by tarnished vats of many shapes and sizes, all festooned with green crud, with a collage of garbage piled at center stage. The set gets even better as the show progresses, as each of the icky tubs transforms into a sly, scene-changing object, from the mayor's desk to Melvin's living-room furniture to Sarah's bedroom stuff.

Musical director David Nagy leads a five-piece rock band perched atop the action, and the sound blend is excellent — every word was audible last weekend, save for a distracting microphone malfunction toward the end of Act I. The actors below them are excellent enough to rise above the arch silliness they're given.

Kleiner brings the perfect balance of wide-eyed naivety and knowing spunk to Sarah, and Hodos' soaring voice and palpable intensity brighten the scenery without chewing it. As the devilish mayor, she's charismatically evil, and as Melvin's mother, she's a recognizable shrew. With directorial sleight of hand and a few manic costume changes, she even manages to play both characters dueling inside a beauty salon: It's the bipolar, bravura highlight of the show.

Joshua Dobarganes and Dexter Carr deliver stable, and sometimes transcendent, support in their roles as "White Dude" and "Black Dude," inhabiting what must be more than a dozen parts each throughout the show, from cops and doctors to busty girls and butchered old ladies to a thinly veiled Bruce Springsteen.

Cartland's Toxic Avenger is the nominal glue holding the production together. Clad in a bulky monster suit and rubber mask on loan from the original off-Broadway run — a costume complete with a precipitously dangling left eyeball and countless craterous pus sacs — he gives a performance that feels inherently limited by his raiment, and it's less exuberant than his recent performance in Actors' Playhouse's First Date. Cartland was born to play this part, but he assists more than scores this time, acquiescing the spotlight to his cast mates.

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Speaking of those costumes, I was hoping for a Toxic Avenger more makeup- than mask-driven; because it doesn't ooze, it doesn't feel particularly alive. Kleiner's motley collection of clashing skirts, tops, and knee-high socks may be designer David C. Woolard's best work — they look very much like a blind person selected them.

Arisco throws everything he possibly can into his direction, right up to the frenzied, reference-filled, Looney Tunes climax. Some of it lands better than others, but even the winning touches take the edge off the character's legacy. Though champions of cheeky camp may love it, this Avenger could have been more toxic.

The Toxic Avenger
Through November 8 at Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293, Tickets cost $45 to $53.

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Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre

280 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL 33134


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