What role does the artist play in a world that equates fame with ability? Are creative types required to defer to the paying public's likes and dislikes? Or are they duty-bound to subvert and question convention, no matter what the cost?
Despite some rough going early on, those questions ultimately emerge as paramount in the Arvada Center's production of As Bees in Honey Drown. Smartly directed by Billie McBride and well acted by a six-person ensemble, the play starts out on Beautiful People Overdrive -- an annoyance that appears born of a desire to compensate for the script's shortcomings. Before long, though, the actors settle into their roles and reveal the motives behind their characters' obsessions with appearance and acceptance.
Lured by the promise of an easy paycheck and sustained fame, writer Evan Wyler accepts an assignment from a mysterious woman who claims to have high-wattage show-business connections. ("Nobody tells you about that little breather period between critical and financial success," observes Evan.) Having just received some high-profile exposure -- he's on newsstands everywhere as the half-naked cover boy for LIVE, a mythical, flavor-of-the-moment magazine -- Evan jumps at the opportunity to pen the life story of Alexa Vere de Vere, a highly affected sort whose gossipy ways and fashionable attire make her look and sound like an ultra-hip hybrid of Liz Smith and Gloria Vanderbilt. Soon, Evan learns a proverbial thing or two about illusion and reality -- a process that, while messy, painful and sordid, proves invaluable.
There really isn't much more than that to Douglas Carter Beane's play, though there's a great deal of peripheral -- and seemingly inconsequential -- information that needs to be digested in order to appreciate the scope of Evan's dilemma. Parts of the two-hour show delve into the arrogance of artistic self-pity. The pain of creative angst notwithstanding, however, Evan learns that there are more important things than getting a critical or commercial pat on one's (designer-wear-clad) back. Ultimately, he's forced to decide whether he will renew or dissolve his pact with creativity's muse.
Act One suffers from a too-superficial playing style that reflects the characters' facades but not their underlying desires. That, in turn, makes it hard to see why they'd want anything to do with each other. Once things slow down somewhat, each person's more attractive qualities become apparent, and the ensuing conflicts become easier to understand and accept -- especially during Act Two.
Rachel deBenedet is mostly right on the money as Alexa and, in a surprise twist later on, as her alter ego, Brenda. Technically sharp and emotionally rich, her portrayal is at its best when she appears in an intriguing flashback scene that reveals Alexa's simpler origins. Possessed of an ability to glide through wide emotional swings in the space of a second or two, deBenedet nonetheless renders Alexa as just a tad more cold than she probably needs to be. A touch more uncertainty and sentiment in her first few scenes would nicely foreshadow some of the tenderness she later touches upon.
As Alexa's befuddled paramour (whom she irritatingly calls "Lamb"), actor Ted Bettridge is both credible and appealing in a role that has little substance or shine. He manages to plumb the complexities that define Evan's feelings for Alexa while also striking up easy relationships with a host of minor characters, all of which are skillfully played by Erik Tieze, Paul Page, Jennefer Morris and Beth Flynn. Tieze is especially effective as an easygoing painter who takes a liking to Evan and commiserates with him; Page hits his marks as both a straight-talking record producer and a flitting clothing salesman; Morris delights as a seen-it-all receptionist; and Flynn convinces as a fledgling musician.
In the end, McBride and the actors succeed in driving home the play's most crucial point: Artists are able to enhance their reputations only when they dare to create something new -- an activity that, paradoxically enough, is invariably stifled by the quest for fame.
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