Bizarro and Brainy

There's a lot to be said for this thing that just opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, but here's the essence: Crush the Infamous Thing: The Adventures of the Hollywood Four is the season's funniest comedy and the best cure for postelection, preholiday blues. Don't miss it.

The screwball setup is rich. Somewhere in Hollywood in the Thirties, four glamorous stars in fabulous costumes are dragged off to the slammer, suspects in the bloody murder of their producer, the notorious Uncle Mo. "I get jittery in the lockup," says one of them. "Too many happy memories." Of course you can't keep these four behind bars for long. They are soon on the lam, facing a bouquet of bullets, hiding out in style, and sleuthing their way through a saucy, surrealistic landscape hovering between post-Depression Hollywood and postmodern Broadway. They travel from Los Angeles, through the mountains, to San Francisco, then aboard the German ship SS Glockenspiel to Berlin and maybe Tahiti -- don't ask. They find themselves facing gullible cannibals, closet Nazis and Pulitzer-hungry hacks, cops and feds, crazed fans, and even an old flame from the loony bin come back as a terrorist armed with sticks of dynamite.

What seems like a cast of thousands is really just the three authors plus a fellow comic dynamo they picked up along the way, directed within an inch of their lives in this world-premiere production by Carl Andress. The playwriting collective of Tina Benko, Gabrielle Reznek, and Sam Turich has been working together on improvisational comedy for more than a decade, and it shows. Add the hilarious Tim McGeever to the mix and the results are giddy, clever, and bright. All four actors take naturally to that geographically untraceable, faux-classy diction that was all the rage in Thirties Hollywood pictures. (Did anyone ever really talk like Claudette Colbert or Myrna Loy? Does it matter?) Even the amplified dialogue, so often a distraction at the Playhouse, here subliminally adds up to a reminder of old movie soundtracks. More to the point, not once do Benko, Reznek, Turich, or McGeever fall into the trap of condescending to camp, of knowingly winking at the audience, or even of suggesting there's anything wrong with the script's lunatic logic.

The madcap dialogue's machine-gun speed, buoyed by Andress's mercurial direction, keeps the audience not only in stitches but definitely on the edge of their seats. This is not your basic dumb comedy; you have to think fast.

Benko is a hoot as Persimmon Montgomery, a megastar in disrepair and perhaps on the road to spinster alley: Her next role, horror of horrors, might be playing Deanna Durbin's mother. Benko's Persimmon is a complex, star-within-a-star creation, a rare drag performance by an actual beautiful woman. McGeever is, if anything, even funnier, his Tommy Tompkins a lovable cook right out of Wodehouse. This actor-inside-an-actor seems ready for a revival of Mr. Cinders, or at least of Good News -- obviously on the edge of crazy yet strangely sane in his hilarity. And that's not even counting his ukulele. Reznek, playing the blonde bombshell Meryl Lombardy as well as the choice little roles of the sleazy reporter Mabel Todd and the oversexed Countess, is perfect. Like her fellow screwballers, she creates an air of complete innocence about her far-from-innocent character. And Turich as Kent Grattan pulls off an improbable channeling of Cary Grant and Billy DeWolfe, at once hilarious and debonair, a real gem.

Andress, returning in style after last season's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, obviously knows a thing or two about the strange alchemy of elegance and slapstick that is at the heart of screwball comedy. The best thing about his direction is that it's nearly invisible. Yet the details are telling, down to the one-dimensional stage blocking that mimics the illusion of watching a motion picture on a big, flat screen (the actors rarely cross upstage or down). That direction is very much of a piece with Gregory Gale's sumptuous black-and-white costumes and Michael Anania's black-and-white flat, projected sets. Save for the last scene, including the curtain call -- a rare lapse in comic timing in an otherwise pitch-perfect production -- Andress keeps the whole affair running with sexy ease at breakneck speed.

Crush the Infamous Thing is an original, genuinely intelligent piece of work. Like the best comedies of Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks, Crush on the surface never takes itself seriously. Like Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? or more precisely Charles Busch's Red Scare on Sunset, Benko, Reznek, and Turich's play is more than an affectionate and witty tribute to a genre shrouded in nostalgia. It is also rather wonderful, and new.

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