If you diagrammed the experience of the Riverbend Theatre Collective's As Bees in Honey Drown, it would look something like a roller coaster: There'd be an extended incline followed by a precipitous drop, several more inclines each followed by lesser drops, a few twists, and an eventual return to your point of origin. And as with a roller coaster, you might find yourself having a terrific time during Bees' ride, even if your enjoyment wears off quickly, and a few of its shakier moments give you a headache.
In this production of Douglas Carter Beane's 1997 comedy, director Allison Collins-Elfline has you anticipating juicy, bitchy fun right off the bat, with Bees protagonist Evan Wyler (Jake Walker) enjoying his first brush with fame following the publication of his debut novel. "Enjoying," though, isn't quite the word for it, as this straight-laced - though not straight - New Yorker is engaged in a torturous magazine shoot, wherein the photographer's assistant (Reader employee Stephanie Burrough) insists on referring to herself in the third person, and the photographer (Patrick Gimm) insists on Evan removing his shirt. With Walker's good-humored incredulity playing off Gimm's hilarious feyness and Burrough's divine apathy ("Amber wants to be dancing"), this smart prelude immediately sets up Beane's comedic conceit - that those desperate enough for notoriety will eventually, and willingly, ignore their better instincts to get it. (Evan takes his shirt off.)
It's a jazzy opening, and we're jazzed further with the introduction to one Alexa Vere de Vere (Maggie Woolley), who's the kind of haughty, moneyed socialite you've met only in the movies, sporting a vaguely British accent - which she likens to Kathleen Turner's - and name-dropping at the speed of sound. At a lunch meeting, she blindsides Evan with tales of globe-trotting and her nascent production company and friendships with David Bowie and Iman, and then asks Evan if he'll do her the honor of writing the screenplay of her life. What fledgling novelist could resist?
Bees goes on to detail why Evan absolutely should resist, although in the personage of Maggie Woolley, Alexa is pretty irresistible. With her kitty-cat adorableness detracting attention from some serious claws, Evan's patron - or is it vice versa? - is a walking contradiction, and in a stunner of a performance, so is Woolley; her Alexa is both captivating and exasperating, and clever enough to suggest just how closely linked the two are. Woolley's throwaway quips are superbly timed and her dramatic revelations beautifully rendered, and she's marvelous when bantering with Walker; his unapologetic heroine-worship squares off against her unacknowledged egotism, and music is made.
In truth, there's only one problem with Bees' early scenes: There are several you can barely understand. The Village Theatre's acoustics seemed to work fine for Riverbend's recent Kimberly Akimbo, but here a strange echo-chamber effect seems to accompany the more audibly challenging sequences, and whenever Alexa delivers torrents of dialogue from under her breath, or when a carload of party-goers all speak on top of one another, or when Evan wails while a British rock star (Matt Moody) yells and kicks the crap out of him, nearly all the words are lost. (You could feel this loss in Sunday afternoon's audience; there was raucous laughter at the start, but whenever the dialogue became less intelligible - though no less funny - the laughter subsided.)
And while the situation improved in the first act, the second proved to be a huge technical challenge for the show's venue, and one met with mixed results. There are scenes here in which several characters speak from several different locales, and while you can still follow the action, the lack of specific lighting cues does create confusion - we spend a little too much time wondering, "Okay ... where are we now ... ?" For these scenes to work without the proper effects, the actors' lines need to be delivered with hairbreadth timing, and the director needs to position the performers so there can be no narrative confusion, and at Sunday's afternoon presentation, at least, neither happened.
Gripes aside, though, the production is still worth seeing for the witty work of Walker and Woolley (and that's a lot of alliteration even for my tastes), and for Burrough, Gimm, Moody - offering an especially spirited, and surprisingly moving turn as a painter from Alexa's past - and Esther Clement, each multi-cast, offering a series of hysterical, instantly recognizable artistic archetypes. (On Sunday, Clement was substituting for performer Jill Sullivan-Bennin, and if she was at all ill-prepared, you'd never know it.) Plus, Beane's literate and breezy script, though not quite as trenchant as I think it means to be, is chock full of clever, outrageous dialogue (although, in all honesty, I liked this material more when it was called Six Degrees of Separation). I wouldn't have missed As Bees in Honey Drown for anything, but I am a bit disappointed that I wound up missing so much of it.
For information, visit (http://www.riverbendtheatrecollective.com).