Cloud 42

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

When George Bernard Shaw said, “It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid,” he could have been defining the word “camp.” Camp flourishes wherever works that once felt transparently sincere now seem transparently stupid. Quickly and cruelly, the camp sensibility transforms one era’s heartbreak into another’s laugh riot. (Just look at Erich Segal’s Love Story, a now-hokey embarrassment that only a generation ago seemed the last word on love.)

But if there’s enough bedrock emotion in the original work, a camp classic can still be brought to fulsome life, stupidity and all, and even move us. Witness the wonderful results in Cloud 42’s summer-long bill “B Plays in Rep.” It revives two melodramatic potboilers, Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed (1955) and George Kelly’s Craig’s Wife (which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1925), once popular Broadway shows, then Hollywood movies, now threatened with undeserved obscurity.

Resuscitating throbbers like these in 1990 is tricky: unsubtle in their theatrics, they hark back to a performance style that flourished and faded in 50s films and plays. It encouraged highly indicative, sandwich-board acting replete with pregnant pauses, tableaux vivants, soap-operatic flourishes, and gobs of overwrought agony-mongering. No methody mumbling, armpit scratching, or incoherent intensity here; every other moment was intentionally outsized, formulaic, obvious enough for a child to grasp. (A woman hiding a secret would show it by suddenly freezing, pressing a handkerchief to her mouth, and looking confused and bilious. And if you still didn’t know she was hiding something, the ominous music rushed in to set you right.)

In Cloud 42’s reverent re-creation, the scenery chewing is hilarious–inevitable given the disparity between the plays’ emotional cargo and our refusal to suspend an equal amount of disbelief. What’s remarkable is that the plays can still grip and persuade. Perhaps contemporary minimalism has starved us for larger-than-life passions; today only grand operas or rousers like The Gospel at Colonus can deliver the goods as grandiloquently as these welcome imports from a more innocent theatrical era.

Based on a novel by William March, The Bad Seed is still a brilliantly constructed thriller (even if the chills feel as predictable as the passions are CinemaScopic). Anderson wanted to shock his audience by outdoing Freud at his own game, exploding our illusions about childhood innocence and natural goodness. His twisted tale argues that environment can only shape what it is given. What if that given is evil itself? Can “bad seed” be passed on like eye color?

In a decade that glorified domesticity and family “togetherness,” The Bad Seed carried a disturbing cargo of original sin. Some people, goes the play’s message, are innately wicked, cannot be taught to be good, and can only be cured by death. (Perhaps The Bad Seed can explain Leopold and Loeb, Ted Bundy, and Charles Keating.)

Exhibit A is Rhoda Penmark, a sweet-faced eight-year-old girl adored by her neighbors but whom her teacher vaguely fears. With good reason, it turns out: little Rhoda is a psychopathic serial killer who commits three murders without a second thought, and without getting caught. Rhoda is not only innately vicious, she’s also calculating enough to conceal it. The combination makes for an intriguing portrait of schizophrenia–between the simpering, spoiled brat who can prattle on about how much she loves to play in her mother’s scuppernong arbor and the amoral monster who kills remorselessly. Anderson exploits the ironic contrast to the hilt–and Patrick Trettenero’s revival plays it for all it’s worth.

The ugly truth about Rhoda comes out slowly and–to our fury–never fully, except to Christine, her increasingly frazzled mother. With her husband absent in Washington, it’s Christine who must slowly piece together what happened to the boy who was mysteriously drowned at a school picnic (the kid won a penmanship medal that Rhoda wanted). At the same time, Christine learns that even she is not who she thought she was: her dreams of being adopted are indeed true. Her mother, she learns, was “bad seed,” and Christine may have unwittingly transmitted a legacy of crime. In the 1956 film, just as Rhoda is ready to carry out yet another homicide, she’s neatly polished off by a bolt of lightning; the play’s ending is much more sardonic.

Trettenero relishes The Bad Seed’s florid artificiality, treating Anderson’s heavy-handed exposition and ominous foreshadowings like Wagnerian leitmotifs to be orchestrated as lushly as possible. Full of loud and busy colors and crammed with hideous ceramic knickknacks, David Lee Csicsko’s skewed living room is a twisted locale ripe for crime. Daryl Stone’s period-perfect costumes and Tom Chasm’s hair design capture a sense of 50s bland-is-beautiful, and for throbbing effect the staging uses the superbly manipulative score from Spellbound. (Noel Coward was right: cheap music is potent.) There’s camp even in the small stuff: the phone scenes include the hilariously garbled sounds of the other sides of the conversations.

But all this is window dressing; what sets off the fireworks are the portrayals. In the title role, Lorell Wyatt (who played a very different little girl in The Good Times Are Killing Me) is a nightmare in golden braids and demure petticoats. Never mugging the obvious, Wyatt alternates Rhoda’s insipid affectations with glimpses of her cunning cruelty. In contrast, Harry Althaus, cast nontraditionally as Rhoda’s all-suffering mother, conveys embattled decency. Althaus’s Christine disintegrates with glorious abandon; in the penultimate sacrificial scene, which here manages to be both devastating and sidesplitting, Althaus achieves the spellbinding power that actresses in the earlier versions must have exercised. And they were never in drag.

Wyatt and Althaus get tensile support from a cast who always stop short of overkill. Wendy Lueker is briskly idiotic as the psychobabbling landlady who sees nothing but sweetness in darling Rhoda. Peter Zahradnick is hammily creepy as the doomed handyman who wises up to Rhoda before anyone else. Kathryn Gallagher emotes up a storm as the perpetually soused and mourning mother of the boy Rhoda destroyed. Diane Zimmer efficiently depicts the mystery writer whose works unwittingly parallel the real horror.

In Craig’s Wife, the villain is grown up and the plot much weaker. The title character is a contagiously unhappy wife who can multiply her miseries like loaves and fishes. Harriet Craig is a cold-blooded control freak so obsessed with her house beautiful–no one would call it a home–that she thinks of her husband as an embarrassing domestic accident. Except, well, Walter does pay for the shopping sprees.

An old-fashioned playwright (he also wrote The Show Off), George Kelly leaves nothing to chance and no judgment unspoken. Early in the play Walter’s maiden aunt pronounces her verdict on Harriet: “She wants to exclude the world–because she’s afraid of it.”

Harriet has reason to be afraid. Her mother died of a broken heart after Harriet’s father two-timed her; Harriet’s father married the home wrecker and put the house in her name. Like Scarlett, Harriet vowed never to lose control of her world, to make certain that, to quote Kelly’s stiff style, “a woman might lose her husband but not her home if she knew how to secure it.” “Why does a person need anyone?” she sneers, and warns her niece to avoid getting trapped by the “snare of romance.”

The result is an anal-retentive, manipulative, ball-busting 1930s-style Hedda Gabler. Protective of the house because it makes her independent, Harriet orders the servants to use the back stairs rather than trample the carpets, and hates the neighbors who dare to inspect her “rooms that have died and are laid out,” as the aunt describes them. She loathes roses for the petals they drop, and even orders that her trees be dusted.

Feminists might say the play condemns Harriet too easily. She’s just a bored, idle matron too aware of her uselessness to want to hide it, they might say.

But Harriet can still be a bitch. She fires a maid for coming too close to her favorite vase. When abused Walter finally rebels, he does it by smashing that prize vase, and his actions carry almost the same charge as Nora slamming the door in A Doll’s House.

Judy O’Malley’s staging milks every breathless moment for a ton of histrionics. Watching their moves, you figure her ensemble must have seen scores of 50s “women’s films” to ape so well their arch gestures, vaporous intensity, and clipped line readings.

Embalmed in a black bouffant wig, four wickedly accurate 50s gowns (including a drop-dead indigo sack dress), and not-very-subtly symbolic rhinestone brooches depicting a dragonfly and a spider, Harry Althaus plays Harriet Craig. Complete with forced smile, icy glare, and brittle vulnerability, Althaus is a worthy successor to such early Harriets as Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. Richard Sherman gives put-upon Walter as much dignity as the worm deserves. In a period-perfect performance (a la Lucille Watson in The Women), Wendy Lueker plays the maiden aunt with efficiency and craft. Equally telling work comes from Kathryn Gallagher as Harriet’s widowed neighbor (a woman who fairly radiates nobility), Lorell Wyatt as her too-impressionable niece, and Diane Zimmer as the disillusioned Irish housekeeper.