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The sweet stuff: Morgan Forsey stars in As Bees in Honey Drown.

Fame Game

'As Bees in Honey Drown' takes on celebrity culture

By Patrick Sullivan

EACH ONE sets out alone, but they arrive by the busload, wandering in wide-eyed crowds through the Port Authority or down Hollywood Boulevard, full of confirmed ambitions and untested talents. The honey-sweet propaganda of our celebrity culture pulls them in by the millions, but these aspiring actors and musicians soon learn that Nashville, Hollywood, and New York can be as merciless to the would-be famous as a backyard bug-zapper is to a hapless moth.

One small step above these pitiable swarms is Evan Wyler, the young writer at the center of Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, a scorching take on the fame game now onstage at Actors Theatre in a production directed by Argo Thompson.

After nine years of struggle, Evan (played by Peter Downey) has finally published a novel to critical acclaim. But that doesn't mean his need to succeed is any less. Indeed, we get a taste of how desperately hungry Evan is to cement his celebrity in the play's first scene, when a domineering magazine photographer easily bullies the shy young man into taking off his shirt for a sexy picture to accompany a profile piece. "Now fuck the camera," the photographer orders, and Evan obeys, though it seems clear that it's actually the camera that's fucking him.

That compromise will not be his last. When this little lamb encounters someone who wants more than a bit of fleece off his back, we learn that Evan is willing to sacrifice anything--from his artistic integrity to his sexual identity--to see his name in lights.

The predator in question is a glamorous woman with the unlikely name of Alexa Vere de Vere (played by the charming Morgan Forsey), who swoops down upon Evan with a modest proposal that promises to make him rich and famous. One character describes Alexa as "a combination of every woman I've ever loved in any movie," and her mix of sexual chemistry and big talk about rock-star clients and investors in Milan easily seduces the hungry young writer. But Evan soon learns that her name isn't the only unlikely thing about her.

Alexa is a whirlwind of cigarette holders and little black dresses, a nonstop talker who always says less than the truth. Her verbal powers overwhelm her prey: "I don't believe in agents, do you?" she asks Evan, and he quickly agrees. It's not giving too much away to reveal that Alexa is a con artist, though the exact nature of the con she's running on Evan is more complicated than it first appears.

But there's one problem here. If you're a grifter, success lies less in what you say than how you say it. If you throw around phrases like "great lashings of butter," you'd better not stutter. That advice goes double for an actor playing a con artist.

Unfortunately, by opening night Forsey hadn't quite mastered the verbal dexterity required for the part of Alexa. To be fair, it's not an easy role, and there were times when the actress succeeded admirably in carrying it off. But even slight stumbles have a big effect in a part this tightly written. Alexa is meant to cast a spell, but every
fumbled line mars the enchantment.

Perhaps that's one reason the play picks up in the second act, when Evan starts to reclaim both his life and the stage space from his oppressor. After discovering Alexa's deception, the writer is torn between ideas of revenge and more complicated emotions. Downey does a convincing job of portraying his character's transition from wide-eyed vulnerability to hard-won wisdom, and by the end we've learned as much about his maturing psychology as we have about Alexa.

We also meet Mike (played by Michael Fontaine), a talented but unknown painter from Alexa's past who may play a prominent role in Evan's future. Fontaine shines in this small but important role by delivering a nuanced portrait of a thoughtful man shot through with equal parts regret and resolution. Maybe that's only fitting: in a play meant to critique the flash of celebrity without accomplishment, this understated performance is one of the chief highlights.

As Bees in Honey Drown continues Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through Sept. 16 at LBC, Actors Theatre, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Admission is $18. 523-4185.

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From the August 17-23, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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