Annex Theatre has a nifty track record for resurrecting vintage Broadway comedies and recasting them in semidrag. And "Stage Door," which the troupe is presenting with panache at Empty Space Theatre, is right up Annex's twisted alley.
Best known in its much-revised 1937 film version, featuring a parade of glam RKO stars (Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden), the original 1936 Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman script is a gold mine of snappy-catty repartee. And a bible of struggling-Broadway-babes clichés.
Under the sure hand of director Ed Hawkins, Annex deploys a cast of 17 actors — many crossing genders and handling multiple roles. Their take on this tale set in a Big Apple boardinghouse for aspiring actresses is two parts zany pajama party, one part show-biz soap opera.
Hawkins also mounted Mae West's ribald "Sex" and Clare Booth Luce's claws-out opus "The Women" for Annex. With "Stage Door," he nimbly camps things up where camp is called for — and plays matters "straight" when sincerity pays.
The more ludicrous personalities in two acts of Footlights Club comings and goings, heartbreaks and hi-jinks are gently mocked in the cavorting of such imps as Josh List, whose drag version of the imperious landlady Mrs. Orcutt is a dishy wonder — from the cultured purrs, to the boarish bellowing at a mush-mouthed maid, Mattie (Frannie Pope).
And while Christina Mastin pushes the obnoxious, no-talent wannabe role of Bernice to creepy extremes, Bret Fetzer plays zoned-out loser Kaye with so little affect a pulse barely registers.
As the house pianist, a grumpy Russian snob in a turban, Chris Jeffries glowers with relish. And there's a funny gargoyle in Kate Czajkowski's Linda Shaw, a Carol Channing look-alike who'll do anything (and wear any amount of red lipstick) to make it big.
Though milked for absurdity, these stock figures are gracefully choreographed by Hawkins. Taken more seriously (if with a pinch of irony) is the heroine Terry Randall — the most talented, generous and idealistic Footlights denizen.
Endearing Lindsay Hunter plays Terry with breezy intelligence and aplomb, making you believe in the gal's integrity and even her ardor for a slimeball playwright, Keith (Chris Dietz).
Through Terry's love of theater and sacrifices for "art," Kaufman gets in digs at some favorite targets: the craven Hollywood film world and politically smug writers who sell out to the first bidder.
Ah yes, the theatah versus film. By the 1930s, the play reminds us, Broadway was losing its fervent rivalry with Hollywood for the public imagination — but clinging fast to its superiority complex.
In the celluloid "Stage Door," penned by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, Tinsel Town gets some of its own back by making Hepburn's Terry such a stage snob you want to spank her.
By all means, rent the movie — it's a treat. But Annex's gently bent homage is another sort of guilty pleasure — one equipped, it should be noted, with a swell parlor set by Marion Williams (dig those crazy posters) and costumer Heather Moore's retro lingerie, fur pieces and gowns to die for.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org.