Meet the Ultimate Black Widow in As Bees in Honey Drown

Bryan Kaplun and Whitney Zangarine, a lovely spider
Bryan Kaplun and Whitney Zangarine, a lovely spider
Photo by Christine Weems

The set-up:
Con artist deluxe Alexa Vere de Vere loves to drop names.
During her non-stop sweet-sell assault, she might mention Andy Warhol, then Gore Vidal, maybe rocker Simon Le Bon, or her intimate friend Lord Chichester. She's so adept at dropping names, she even dropped hers, Barbara Gelb...years ago.

The execution:
Come meet the ultimate black widow, the female showbiz Machiavelli, the most suave spider in the nest, super agent to the stars – or would-be stars – Ms. de Vere, who runs roughshod over any innocent who yearns for stars in his/her eyes. Magnificently created by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, and limned to purring perfection by Whitney Zangarine at Queensbury Playhouse for its inaugural production of As Bees in Honey Drown in its intimate Black Box theater, Alexa's got the smoothest moves. She's a pro with exquisite timing. She knows exactly the right time to swoop in and attach those lacquered talons onto the rubes.

Her victims, all willing dupes eager to be seduced by the fame and fortune she blithely dangles before their wide eyes, have been dancers, musicians, painters, actors, and her latest catch, hot young writer, Evan Wyler (Bryan Kaplun), anyone who's got nascent talent. She's got a nose for spotting talent, but like some persistent vampire bat, she goes right for the jugular.

Within days, she's drained them, emotionally and, most importantly for her, financially. Before they even realize what's happened or what's hit them, their credit cards have been maxed, their bank accounts flattened, their dreams squashed. Once Alexis has gotten a new dress, maybe a strand of gems from Tiffany's, a roll in the hay, and usually some sympathetic tears for her melodramatic back story, she's off to latch on to another patsy. In her surprisingly easy upward journey, she's a glittering grifter. (In costumer LeeAnne Deeny's haute couture,  Zangarine looks smashing and to the manner born. Who wouldn't fall headfirst for her honeyed lies?)

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Douglas Carter Beane pens this soiled valentine with insider's panache and plenty of perfumed venom. Recently represented on Broadway in The Nance with Nathan Lane as an oldtime gay drag star and a lauded revival of The Little Dog Laughed, his gay-themed works have included To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; Sister Act; and the PC-reworked book for the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (which just played at the Hobby Center). His works drop more names than Alexa, but who's counting? He's got a knack for insider info, for letting the skeletons clank out of the closet. He may not be Oscar Wilde, but he's the closest we've got.

Under director Christine Weems, Beane's oily tale sails smooth and true. The bare bones set, designed by John Stevens and Weems, consists of three playing areas, which double or triple as bedroom, photographer's studio, restaurant, bar, limousine backseat, airport lounge, hotel lobby, painter's studio. There's no fat; it moves fast, like Alexa. When de Vere catches whiff of some up-and-comer, usually in some magazine – she reads a lot – she zeros in on them with the unerring instinct of a laser-guided weapon of mass destruction. She purrs, she cajoles, she promises, she lies. Invariably, she gets them exactly where she wants them.

Her victims are so enthralled and so innocent with making it big, they'll believe anything she tells them. We'll learn in due time where and how she taught herself the rules of wanna-be stardom and how to sucker punch these defenseless fools. Just sit back and enjoy her scam.

With sweet open face and wide eyes, Kaplun makes Evan a ripe lamb for shearing. He's as amazed at his novice writer's good fortune as anyone. Gay Evan falls into Alexa's trap with grateful swoon, even falling in love with her which neither of them bargains for. Is this going to be Alexa's fateful mistake, though? You'll have to watch Beane's arch comedy to find out.

A lively, game ensemble cast of four enlivens Bees, buzzing through spurned lovers, would-be clients, gal Fridays, clerks, obsequious hoteliers, egotistic rock stars. Joseph Lockett, Keith Huckabay, Sammi Sicinski, and Mai Le go the extra mile with their vivid, spot-on portrayals.

But, of course, it's Zangarine's show. And she's a beaut. Really. With that velvet sheen of a voice, that Louise Brooks black helmet bob, that way-of-the-world attitude, who'd ever guess she originally hailed from West Reading, Pennsylvania, all frizzed hair and whacked-out sensibility? The old Alexa – or would that be Barbara – had a dream, too, just as real as the dream of those she now lives to con. She wanted out of PA, the sooner the better.  Zangarine plays Beane's lovely manipulator with immense charm. Just never turn your back on her.

The verdict:
Presented by Queensbury Theatre, Beane's gilded fairy-tale world can seem mighty prescient – you know, fame without accomplishment; manufactured stardom: hello, Kim; hello, Paris; hello, Miley. We fall right in. Are any of us immune from an Alexa who spins such dreams and promises views over the rainbow? What she offers is older than stardom. Get thee behind me, Satan. Well, as long as you're there, how about a push?

As Bees In Honey Drown continues through October 11 at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. Purchase tickets online at queensburytheatre.org or call 713-467-4997. $35.


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