Playwright Douglas Carter Beane--who must have picked up a few pointers on Hollywood while scripting To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar--has a sharp eye and an even sharper ear for the varying degrees of longing, envy, voyeurism and inner emptiness that fuel the cult of slick-paper celebrity worship. In Bees, which was a hit off-Broadway a few years ago, he's distilled those elements to their purest form and concentrated them in one outrageous character: Alexa Vere de Vere (Morrisa Nagel in the current production by Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Ensemble Players).
Alexa is a talent-devouring spider whose latest fly is Evan Wyler, a young novelist getting his first taste of fame. She's also a name-dropping chatterbox with a foot-long cigarette holder, a shaky English accent and an ever-changing biography. In real life, anyone who fell into the hands of a character like this wouldn't wait five minutes before remembering an urgent appointment and backing out of the room. As this is the stage, Alexa has the opposite effect on Evan, and on the audience at Thompson Theatre. Nagel, in Louise Brooks wig and Joan Collins shoulder pads, is lovely enough to make any man overlook Alexa's cavalier approach to her own past and other people's money. Her infectious vivacity in the role is almost too much of a good thing, however; she barely hints at what must have been Alexa's overwhelming, inhuman need to reinvent herself.
But such deep feeling may be out of place in what is, after all, a comedy. Director Rod Rich has wisely staged Alexa's monologues at a breakneck pace that leaves no time for any reaction but laughter, and sometimes not even that. "If John Cheever's dead, you're my favorite living author," is a sample of Beane's blink-and-you'll-miss-'em witticisms.
The Cheever crack also typifies what gives Bees its satirical sting. The script is awash in references to famous people--some real, some invented--that the speakers know little or nothing about. The first act is somewhat predictable, a Candide-like fable of a trusting innocent in over his head. But when the worm turns in the second act (in ways it would be unsportsmanlike for a reviewer to reveal), Beane transforms the bluff and babble of half-informed gossip into something approaching opera, complete with motifs, variations, repetitions and choral numbers. (In addition to the leads, the script calls for four other actors playing some two dozen roles.) The first half of Bees is funny. The second half is funnier, faster and fueled by Beane's love-hate relationship with the world of images and spin.
Rich's production mixes great strengths--the Act II gossip "arias," for instance--with flaws like fussy scene changes and stepped-on jokes, but on the whole the production is solid and intelligent. Scott Nagel brings an engaging charm to Evan, a character who could easily come across as either bland or silly in less skillful hands. (He also seems to have an instinctive rapport with the actress playing Alexa, a fact that may owe something to their being married in real life.)
In the largest of the show's other roles, Seth Blum plays a laidback painter with confidence and sly humor. Tony Hefner, Barbette Hunter and Melissa Rickets have fewer chances to shine individually, but they more than make up for that collectively, acting as a gossiping Greek chorus that never lets the audience forget that, to these bees, all that counts is buzz.