The new year’s theater season is in full swing with two new shows playing in Arlington County’s Gunston Arts Center. The American Century Theater is reviving the 1950s stage comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in the smaller space, the flexible black box known as Theatre Two, while Dominion Stage mounts the quirky small musical takeoff of 1930s anti-marijuana propaganda, "Reefer Madness" in the larger Theatre One.
"Success" is the kind of straight forward stage comedy that flourished on Broadway in the middle of the last century. It is author George Axelrod’s attempt to capitalize on the success of his first Broadway comedy, "The Seven-Year Itch," by looking at the problems a playwright has trying to come up with a second hit play. In this case, he turned to the classic tale of Faust striking a deal with the devil in exchange for his soul. The twist was that the devil was a theatrical agent willing to guarantee success for 10 percent — not of the author’s income but of his soul.
With plenty of opportunities to lampoon the culture of show business in the 1950s, Axelrod’s script is both clever and funny. He populates the piece with characters that are caricatures of Hollywood and Broadway types including a buxom blond in the Jayne Mansfield mold (Mansfield actually originated the role both on stage and in the movie version which followed), a shifty and devilish agent, a milquetoast of a writer with no talent whatsoever (says the agent/devil: "We’re not talking talent here, we’re talking success!") and even an adonis-like athlete.
Donald Osborne is almost two dweebish as a writer of magazine articles who’d sell his soul for 1) money, 2) the love of the sexiest woman he knows and 3) success as a screenwriter. His twerp of a character lacks either a sense of naive decency or underlying charm that could justify the audience caring about him.
However, Osborne is surrounded by cast members who tear into their characters with style. Kari Ginsburg is as funny as she is sexy as the blond bombshell of a starlet while Steven Lebens is smooth and slick with just a hint of shifty as the devil/agent quite reminiscent of "Damn Yankee’s" similar character, "Mr. Applegate," who sells baseball success for the same type of deal. (It is interesting to note that both "Damn Yankees" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" opened in the same year, 1955.)
John Tweel does a particularly smooth job of building the character of the playwright who faces the same problem Axelrod was facing when he tried to top the success of his first hit, and Craig Miller’s portrayal of a prototypically self-absorbed studio boss is very funny in the scene where the devil seduces him with the prospect of receiving an Academy Award.
JUST DOWN THE HALL, in the 460-seat proscenium style Theatre One, Tom Flat leads the cast of "Reefer Madness" through its camp, single-gag romp of a musical take-off. Flat plays the 1930s high school teacher who, with the help of his school’s drama club, stage the story of drug-induced degradation that befalls a clean cut, all-American couple when they give in to the temptation of the devil weed! In the process, Flat plays most of the adult roles as well, and he does so with a sense of panache that often sparks an otherwise rather lackluster evening.
With an on-stage band of six and enough wireless microphones for the lead performers but not for the chorus of supposedly drugged-out zombies, there is a mismatch in the sound that plagues the production. The featured players bring a variety of skills to the mix but musically the musical never really takes off. Choreographer Catherine Oh, on the other hand, comes up with a number of nifty moves that are within the capabilities of the chorus as well as the leads.
Joel Piper throws himself into the role of the clean-cut kid gone wrong whose love for Mary Lane (a pert Jaclyn Young) is overcome by his addiction to "Mary Jane." Michael Reed is at his best in the non-musical sequences as the pot dealer (he also doubles as Jesus in a brief hallucinatory number) and Amy Baska is his "mol." Sam Nystrom pulls a nifty series of comic bits as a stoned student fixated on a balero, the Latin American ball and cup toy.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.