Imagine a time of madness, gin and jazz. "The Wild Party," running through Dec. 14 at Live Arts, can take you there -- just make sure your glass is full, your clothes sharp and your feet fast. The play is a joyous romp, but it also has the subtle bite of tragic insight lurking just beneath the surface.
"The Wild Party" is Michael John La Chiusa and George C. Wolfe's musical adaptation of a 1928 jazz-epic poem by Joseph Moncure March. The cast, under director Doug Schneider, brings the poem to life in a performance that is, perhaps more than anything else, a period piece, a love letter to the jazz-crazed world of Roaring '20s Manhattan.
The costume design (Michael Muller) is superb, and the live music (Audrey Goldsmith, directing a talented band) and vocals (Mary Elizabeth Forbes) are crisp and lively. This is both a better musical and a better window into the jazzy world of 1920s Manhattan nightlife than you'll be able to find in most any community theater.
That said, though, the storyline and characters accomplish much more than an illustration of setting. Queenie (the flamboyant Mendy Hardy) and her husband Burrs (Chris Patrick) host the evening's party, which takes place without any real justification or occasion. Why not? Who needs a reason?
In this respect, the party becomes an end itself rather than a vehicle for plot. Here, the characters might all be able to agree on one sentiment: Don't mess with me, I'm having a good time. This party is an instance where form becomes content; the mode of vaudevillian escape, liberated expression and alcohol-catalyzed release becomes a story in itself.
But the play's testament to humanity is embedded in its musical genre: In order for them to exist, the songs must be sung by people, and people always come with the messiness of fears, hopes and desires. As a result, plot does end up crashing the party. It wasn't really invited, but its presence seems inevitable.
Once we break through the veneer of people's party faces, we see the conflicts and impossibilities at stake. Queenie realizes how insecurely possessive and abusive Burrs is, just as she begins to find herself drawn to Black (Chris Estey), the boy-toy of her friend and showbiz rival, Kate (Richelle Claiborne).
The play's skeletal events are fairly familiar. A woman turns away from an abusive and unfulfilling marriage, toward the affections of a man who wonders if anything genuine and real is possible for someone who has faked it for so long.
Her husband lashes out against her rebellion with violent fear. A girl (an underrated Alice Reed as Nadine; pay attention to her solos) is drawn to the glamour and experimental possibilities of the city, but a dominant man (Mark Maynard as Jackie) strips her of her illusions.
Two men find each other (Amdie Mengistu and Michael Daguiso as Phil and Oscar). An ex-boxer (Mark Valahovic) and his wife Mae (Jennifer Hoffman) struggle to maintain a relationship amid feelings of impotence and imbalance. Middle-aged businessmen (Stephen Getman and Steve Tharp as Gold and Goldberg) dabble in the world of sin and excess, while an aging performer (Daphne Latham as Dolores Montoya) clings to what remains of her glamorous persona.
There's nothing terribly shocking or revelatory here. What does persist, though, is our sense that the particularities of these characters, of this place and time, are anything but. The problems of "The Wild Party" are neither high dramatic tragedy nor dismissible eccentricity.
Domestic power struggles, racial tension and sexual confusion belong to the everyday, tragedies that hit close to home. And here is where the medium of the party regains its crucial function.
The play occurs in something relatively close to real time. It lasts the course of an evening, and as it moves forward and the night gets longer, the characters gain their third dimension. They become conflicted. They reveal the vulnerabilities that lie just beneath the powder and silk.
In this respect, the metaphor of the party becomes transcendent -- a cry of shallow joy that deepens into both a cry of pain and a cry of hope. In the small hours of the morning, tipsy and exhausted, we can't help but be honest with ourselves about who we are. It is then that we are our most human.
Don't look to "The Wild Party" for highbrow drama or aphoristic seriousness. But it can offer an entertaining evening, along with the echoed reflections of our own imperfections. Bottoms up.