There is a point early in ArtsWest's latest production when Heather Hawkins, as the saccharine-sweet grifter Alexa Vere de Vere, aims a withering gaze at her prey of the hour, up-and-coming pretty boy novelist Evan Wyler (Andrew McIntyre). Facing away from Alexa, deep in the throes of personal confession, deliciously vulnerable, Evan is oblivious to the silent sizing up. Make no mistake: The spite, loathing, and greed flooding Alexa's eyes tell us Evan's a goner. Done deal. It's a wonderful moment—one a lesser actor might let slide—which Hawkins invests with complex, chilling significance. In that predatory glare is revealed a universe of hurt and hurting, telling us all about the ugly undercurrent of fame's give and take. Joan Crawford made a career out of that look.
As Bees in Honey Drown (through Sat., Feb. 4; ArtsWest Playhouse, 206-938-0339, www.artswest.org),written by Douglas Carter Beane (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything) and directed by Christopher Zinovitch, is full of such moments. On its surface, the play borrows the classic structure and tortuous, seedy plot of the pulp crime caper, à la James Cain and Jim Thompson: (1) Lonesome, ambitious, roughed-up boy meets irresistible, intelligent, world-weary girl; (2) he falls under her spell as she hatches a fail-safe scheme to win them both fame and fortune; (3) he sacrifices his soul, she takes it while seeming to give, and he doesn't know what hit him; (4) she disappears.
Here the boy is Evan, a writer growing impatient about the lag time between genius revealed and celebrity gained. Alexa, a kind of freelance talent agent with a Midas touch, sweeps Evan off his feet ("I'm overt with joy over your novel!"), and enlists him to write her life story. Beane tweaks this formula toward satire, injecting his play's noir architecture with a strong dose of Oscar Wilde and Nathanael West. The result is a scathingly funny cat-and-mouse game that unfolds as a metaphysical deconstruction of our culture's unhealthy obsession with celebrity and wealth. Pulsing underneath is a compelling psychological mystery, as Evan, bent on revenge, seeks to unravel the tangled enigma of Alexa. And get his money back.
The story is great, wicked fun, full of sharp turns and forked dialogue. The set, a Nagel-inflected wash of neon and bad '80s modernism right out of a Duran Duran video, looks great, and the music fits the bill nicely, lots of synthesized post-punk like Duran and Bowie. But what makes this production really fly are the performances. Hawkins is nothing short of amazing; when, with all the seductive evil of corrupted self-wisdom, she tells Evan, "Honey, I know how to interest people," she sends a chill through the room. She fully inhabits Alexa, channeling the vamping spirits of Crawford and Bette Davis and adding a sort of neo–West Hollywood tartness, full of high-octane patter and a whip-smart, wily sexuality. Most impressive is Hawkins' handling of a flashback to Alexa's past, depicting her transformation from abrasive, uncultured poseur to master grifter in the difficult space of 10 minutes. It's a stunning piece of acting, utterly convincing. The rest of the cast members hold their own. McIntyre, with his moony, credulous demeanor, captures a young writer's convoluted striving, a combination of fumbling arrogance and lacerating self-doubt; he's an easy mark. Gavin Cummins is spot-on in his role as Alexa's mentor and first victim; Beth Cooper, Paul Custodio, and Kate Witt round out the small, competent cast.
Led by Hawkins' tour de force, this well-balanced and sharply executed production achieves a near-perfect integration, every detail in place: gesture, vision, pacing, moral punch. As Bees in Honey Drown seems to achieve exactly what it sets out to. It's difficult to imagine a better definition of artistic excellence.