“Adrift in Macao” is witty musical parody of 1950s film noir

Durang spoofs stock Chinese character, bar singers and man on the run.

By Lucy Komisar

Christopher Durang‘s clever, witty and marvelously staged parody of film noir makes you grin till your cheek bones hurt. Durang is one of America‘s most durable and talented satirists, though he makes the point that this play is a parody, “a fun way to celebrate something you love,” rather than a satire, which points out “stupidities or destructiveness in a subject that upsets you.”

The Primary Stages production, directed with great comedic sense by Sheryl Kaller, shows the superiority of clever parody to broad camp. When Lureena (Rachel de Benedet), a long lanky blonde in slinky purple gown, disembarks in Macao, circa 1952, she calls out “Rickshaw!”

“Hello, I‘m Rick Shaw, declares a slightly seedy but good-looking man (Will Swenson) as he approaches in a white suit, black shirt, and stubble.

Lureena‘s musical intro (Durang also wrote the lyrics) is “In a foreign city in a slinky dress.” Fortunately, an attractive lady who can carry a tune and slink can always get a job as a nightclub singer. In this case it‘s at Rick Shaw‘s Surf and Turf Gambling Casino.

Durang expresses his love for a lot of 1950s movie icons. The black Maltese Falcon makes an appearance, but later we learn that the diamonds it hides are really coated corn. (As is the film.) The bird is carried by a Chinese factotem (the multi-talented multi-accented Orville Mendoza), who is called Tempura because he‘s been battered by life. And he insists that he is “scrutable.”

Michele Ragusa, playing the just deposed nightclub singer Corinna, does a smashing Carmen Miranda number, “Mambo Malaysian.” So you thought that only South America had tropical fruit to pile on a headdress? Ragusa‘s gutsy voice and style are crowd pleasers.

The final key character is Mitch (Alan Campbell), a brooding American running from a mysterious past. He also has the requisite white suit, good looks, and stubble. Mitch is a short story writer. We hear a bit of his oeuvre when he reads from his journal: “She dripped seduction like water, and I was parched.” But, he doesn‘t do so well with Lureena, because, as she reminds him, “Not on the first night, mister. It‘s 1952.”

Mitch is looking for McGuffin which, according to Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device that moves the characters and the story, “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. As Durang‘s characters explain, “They seek him here, they seek him there, they seek him everywhere.” From a 1905 poem by Baroness Orczy about the Scarlet Pimpernel, which of course became an iconic line in the Hollywood film.

Durang manages to include a parody of a parody, homage to “Spamalot,” when Rick sings smartly, “Why didn‘t they write me a song?”

My favorite bit is when Rick interrogates his singers, who are now in New York “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Moments later, Corinna, a recovering opium addict, explains that “the more wholesome environment of America in the 50s” has gotten her off drugs. So a little bit of satire, in Durang‘s definition, creeps in.

The score, by Peter Melnick, is brash, tuneful Hollywood, with due obeisance to the familiar theme songs of private eyes. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli creates lively dance numbers of the movie musical genre. And Thomas Lynch has designed a properly garish piano bar with red curtains.

“Adrift in Macao.” Book & lyrics by Christopher Durang. Music by Peter Melnick. Director Sheryl Kaller. Choreography by Christopher Gatelli. Starring Alan Campbell, Will Swenson, Rachel de Benedet, Orville Mendoza, Michele Ragusa, Jonathan Rayson, Elisa Van Duyne. Sets by Thomas Lynch. Costumes by Willa Kim.

Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59 Street. Tue 7pm; Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Through March 4, 2007. $70. 212-279-4200. http://www.primarystages.com/.

Photos by James Leynse.

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