Not Waving but Drowning
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
-- Stevie Smith
In Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, Evan Wyler (played by Mark Heimann) learns a little something about the facts of life and even more about life's fictions. After nine years of sacrifice, the young writer finally publishes his first novel and becomes an overnight sensation. Soon the mysterious and glamorous Alexa Vere de Vere (Kim Cozort) summons him to write the screenplay of her life story. Evan thinks that his luck is finally changing for the better and that this proposition signifies his entrance into the world of fame, success, and money. What happens instead is beyond most writers' imaginations. Evan, who is gay, is so taken with Alexa's effusive charm and excessive lifestyle that he fools himself into thinking he's in love with her. As suddenly as she enters his life, Alexa disappears, leaving him alone and with a $15,000 credit card debt for all the expensive dinners and designer clothing they've gone through. Evan finds himself swimming in success -- and then drowning in it. Enraged and hurt, he goes on a rampage in search of Alexa and her real identity, uncovering a trail of others who have been mesmerized by her and also ended up footing the bill for her lavish lifestyle. This search for revenge (full of surprises for Evan and laughs for the audience) offers an intriguing inside look at the New York-Hollywood world where art meets consumerism. At a time when there are more millionaires in the United States than ever, the obsession with finding the next hot thing could be likened to a California gold rush in which the gold is something far less tangible but equally elusive, seductive, and potentially destructive.
Alexa, now in her early forties, is Auntie Mame, Sally Bowles, and Mae West all rolled into one (with a little of Dynasty's Alexis -- her namesake -- thrown in). In the first half of the play, we are not conned by Alexa, as Evan is, but we definitely are entranced by Kim Cozort's adept portrayal of this riotous diva. Cozort speaks at a furious pace, in a hard-to-place European accent that suggests glittering jewels, Christian Dior couture, and weekends in the south of France. She reels off witty aphorisms, for example when she compares Calvin Klein fragrances Obsession, Eternity, and Escape to the stages in a contemporary man's relationships. Lines like Je suis knocked out by art and Writers always have the last word because they just know so many beg to be taken over the top, and Cozort delivers. Her candid tone and the sheer detail of her account give her credibility. The more stories she tells, the more oracular she becomes. Her words and mannerisms are inseparable: flick of the wrist, a toss of the head, a regal wave. With no visible line, the gestures blossom into enigmatic stories. Cozort gives Alexa the finely tuned voice a master storyteller must have. She adapts her tone and pitch to each emotional situation to such a minute degree that it appears very real, not as characterization or drama.
The second half of As Bees in Honey Drown is not just good; it is outstanding. This is where the con game ends and the psychological journey begins. As we follow Evan on his pursuit of the truth about Alexa, the layers of his own identity are peeled away. While this is not Heart of Darkness material, it is psychologically compelling. Early in the play, Evan responds to Alexa's inquiry about his sexuality: I sleep with men. I don't love anyone. For the most part, this sums up his relationship with the world. He is not naive; he is vulnerable. He is not confused but lost. Mark Heimann portrays his character in an appropriately detached manner. Even when he's thrilled with the promise an alliance with Alexa holds, he backs away from any real emotion.
At this point the direction of Kenneth Kay also takes an innovative turn. He makes the use of flashbacks fresh and illuminating, and by the second half of the play, the audience is as obsessed with Alexa as Evan is. Fortunately we are never urged to trace Alexa's pathological cunning to some sort of horrific childhood trauma. Even as we find out about her origins, she remains a mystery. The brilliant, charming, and viperous parts of Alexa's personality do not equal the whole, bringing fuller dimension to her own motto: You're not the person you were born -- who wonderful is?
In his pursuit of Alexa, Evan encounters Mike (Michael Warga), a painter who knew Alexa before she was Alexa. As the only character who could be called down to earth and the only one who really knows anything about Alexa's life, Mike is the key to both the transformation of Evan and the unveiling of Alexa's huge creation (her own persona). In some ways the antithesis of Evan, Michael is an artist who is content with the status of unknown and a homosexual who is comfortable with his sexuality. Warga's laid-back, unencumbered delivery creates a nice balance with the rest of the cast members, with their more overtly dramatic roles. Warga, who recently completed a successful run in the Caldwell's production of Snakebit, also gets a chance to show off his talent for comedy as the flamboyant clothier Ronald and the head-banging British rocker Skunk.
With virtually seamless transitions, we almost take for granted the fact that four actors -- Tanya Bravo, Tom Wahl, Michael Warga and Stephanie McNeil -- portray twenty characters. (Beane specifically fashioned this into his script.) The cast exhibits not only a notable reserve of energy and versatility but an aptitude (with the help of costume designer Penny Koleos Williams) for physical mutability. Bravo, in particular, possesses a remarkable ability to metamorphose; she was a standout as twelve-year-old Ruthie in New Theatre's The Book of Ruth. The actors' voices grow more uniform and declamatory and later are mixed with prerecorded voices, including Alexa's, that reiterate the lies, promises, and stories she told in the first half of the play. This produces an incantatory and ultimately hallucinatory effect that combines with the subtle but moody lighting of Thomas Salzman to create a visual portrait of Evan's psychological state.
Fortunately As Bees in Honey Drown does not drown in its own metaphor. Although the comedy and surprises never stop, Evan's transformation at the play's conclusion is comparable to that of any forceful drama. Hats off to the Caldwell for not boxing itself into one type of repertoire. As Bees in Honey Drown is a far leap, in both content and production, from Over the River and Through the Woods or A Delicate Balance (two earlier shows). At the Caldwell, variety seems to be as high a priority as quality, and South Florida's theatergoers can be grateful for that.
Ironically Alexa may have the last say. Look for Bees at a cinema near you. The New York buzz is it that agents were clamoring for screenplay rights at the Big Apple premiere, with plans for none other than Madonna (the queen of self-invention) to play Alexa.
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