First, the good news: Running With Scissors is back onstage at the Shim Sham Club with an original musical comedy -- although that description hardly fits the cheerful anarchy of their style. There are some wonderful performances, hilarious characterizations, catchy songs (by Eric Laws and Jay Palestina) and clever lyrics (by Dorian Rush and Debbie Davis). As always, this troupe generates an aura of genial camp zaniness that almost defies the audience not have a good time.
Pop Tarts (written by Richard Read, Flynn De Marco and Dorian Rush) tells the story of a singing group -- "a pre-fab foursome" -- chosen by an agent/manager (Jim Jeske) from 300 auditioning hopefuls. The curtain rises on the last round of elimination. Alone for a moment with the agent, a singer named Brandon (De Marco) tries to seduce his way to success -- revealing a covert streak of ruthless ambition.
Next we see the final foursome, now called A La Mode, as the warm-up act for superstar Ursula (played with delicious Madonna-like ferocity by Debbie Davis). This pulchritudinous harpy gets them fired for exceeding their contractually agreed volume of applause. Ursula spits venom as well at crossover country star Cassandra Twang (an irresistibly rusticated Dorian Rush), tossing off poison pearls like "keep your cracker-barrel similes to yourself" and "Oh God, are you still breathing?"
During a photo session, Brandon is given an ancient Egyptian amulet to wear, which -- in conjunction with his envious ruminations -- calls up an evil spell. His publicity head shot, like Oscar Wilde's famous oil portrait of Dorian Gray, will bear the horrid physical truth of time and villainy, while Brandon himself will remain youthful and pristine.
Brandon begins his slide into criminality with an act of understandable vengeance. He cuts off the electronic echo from Ursula's voice in the middle of her act, causing her to flee ignominiously from the stage. However, he is soon addicted to the heady taste of evil and starts eliminating his colleagues -- so that he will become, as he states in a signature running gag, "the one true pop star!"
Much of the play deals with Brandon's ingenious ways of snuffing out the competition. Andy (Jason Toups) is a sweet-natured queen; his sexual proclivity must be kept secret from his hysterical pre-teen fans. When he gets drunk at a party and decks himself out like Mariah Carey, Brandon alerts the press. We learn from a news spot on the cable show Entertainment Access that the unfortunate young celebrity was torn to pieces and eaten by a mob of crazed groupies in Ibiza -- A La Mode a la Suddenly, Last Summer. Brandon gets BJ (Brian Peterson) hooked on roofies. The hip-hop tough guy thinks it's the date rapist who is supposed to take the drug, not the intended victim. Danny (Jim Meredith), the always-ignored member of the group, becomes depressed when his incipient film career (Glitter 2) crashes. Brandon encourages him to escape failure by committing suicide.
Brandon also strangles one female singer (Elizabeth Pearce), puts the blame for it on another (Veronica Oliver), shoots his agent and knifes a member of the press. This last murder occurs after a fast-forward of 20 years, when the still-youthful Brandon has re-emerged as an English punk rocker.
Interwoven through this bizarre narrative are some bouncy musical numbers and crafty spoofs of TV hype, projected on a large screen.
There is, as I've said, a great deal here to enjoy. There is also some nagging refusal of the material to quite fulfill itself. The problem, I think, comes down to the nature of "camp" and, more specifically, to the character of Brandon. One of the things that makes camp fun is that the characters are free to -- in fact, almost obliged to -- comment on themselves. They never take themselves seriously. Or rather, even when they're serious, they jump out of themselves and see their own absurdity.
For this to work, the characters must be full of life. In Pop Tarts, Cassandra and Ursula, for instance, have an unforced, comic vitality, as do most of the other characters in varying degrees -- with the exception of Brandon. This is no reflection on the remarkable Flynn De Marco -- it's a writing problem. The central character is the least developed and the least idiosyncratic. He does the most, but he interests us least. When he does reveal himself to us, it is by way of soliloquies that he is not even allowed to speak; his mind speaks in voice-overs. He is, in the end, reduced to a single line and a single gesture.
While this flaw weakens the show, it doesn't ruin it, by any means. If you like Running With Scissors, as I certainly do, go have some fun.
The teen dreams of Pop Tarts' mythical boy band, A La Mode (clockwise from top left): Danny (Jim Meredith), BJ (Brian Peterson), Andy Cass (Jason Toups) and Brandon Lumbercreek (Flynn De Marco)