BOTTOM LINE: This raucous, campy laughfest is consistently hilarious, and also has a heartfelt message of acceptance and inclusion.
Memories of camp… I don't remember exactly what age I was when I first saw Neely O'Hara screaming in that alleyway in Valley of the Dolls, but I knew that something important had happened to me. Later, the sight of Joan Crawford wielding a wire coat hanger in Mommie Dearest did much the same thing. I now realize that I was being initiated into the unique joys of camp. Patty Duke and Faye Dunaway were pouring their real hearts and souls into those over-the-top performances, and in the process giving gay men like me a treasure trove of material for enjoyment and imitation. I can't be the only one who's already waiting breathlessly for the movie of Patti LuPone: A Memoir.
Intentional camp is a different animus; for all of its robust exaggeration, it's a strangely fragile genre. Like farce, conscious camp is a delicate soufflé of skill, precision and chaos. The result, in the best cases, is inspired lunacy. Devil Boys From Beyond comes as close to that ideal as anything I've seen onstage in a very long time.
I regret that I never saw the great theatrical camp artist Charles Ludlam in the flesh, although his brief, memorable appearance in the 1986 film The Big Easy gives a hint of his comic genius. But I have been fortunate enough to see several productions penned by and starring the wonderful Charles Busch. Busch's particular brilliance lies in his highly stylized evocations of the great film actresses of the 30s, 40s and 50s; his very funny plays are primarily showcases for his own glorious talent in that arena.
Devil Boys From Beyond, now at the New World Stages after a successful run in the 2009 Fringe Festival, draws from both camps (as it were) but has its own distinctive flair. The script by Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliott is a witty, Eisenhower-era science fiction spoof. Elliott directs, bringing with him the keen comic sense and inventiveness that he developed while collaborating with Mr. Busch and his Theatre-In-Limbo. The design work is deliciously cheesy and kitsch. And it's a true ensemble piece. Every actor is not only in on the joke, but gets their moment(s) in the spotlight. The part most reminiscent of Mr. Busch's star heroines, tough-talking journalist Mattie Van Buren, is the most demanding and yet potentially the least rewarding role in the show. So much is asked of Mattie comically, dramatically, and musically (!) that the cracks in the effortless façade threaten to show. It's a credit to the actor Paul Pecorino that he not only survives the part but triumphs in it.
Other heavy lifting is done with great style and panache by Robert Berliner and Chris Dell'Armo, with Peter Cormican providing just the right touch of spot-on timing and knowing intelligence in the "straight" role. Andy Halliday, also a Limbo alum, has the ineffable quality of looking like he has never set foot on a stage before in his life. It's hard for a seasoned pro to look like an amateur and Halliday does so hilariously. Jeff Riberdy and Jacques Mitchell, the resident semi-nude, hunkalicious eye candy, perform with admirable (and amusing) understatement.
The production's not-so-secret weapon, though, is Everett Quinton, a veteran of Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Besides having a fierce and highly developed gift for this kind of comedy, Mr. Quinton lends the production a kind of downtown subversiveness that makes it feel more daring than it really is. After all, gay theater has become mainstream, even if such campy, cute-boys-in-their-underpants fare generally stays in the Village. (Or lower. Busch's current vehicle, The Divine Sister, is down at the Soho Playhouse.) Devil Boys From Beyond is a commercial venture, but Mr. Quinton and the entire cast look as though they're performing for the sheer fun of it. That's reason enough to run to the New World Stages and laugh your ass off. It won't make you gay, but it could very well make you happy.
(Devil Boys From Beyond plays at the New World Stages, 350 W. 50th Street, through November 28, 2010. Performances are Wed through Sat at 8pm. Tickets are $65. For tickets visit www.telecharge.com. For more info go to devilboysfrombeyond.com.)