The laughs start immediately and continue right on through to the vintage Hollywood-style curtain call in The Drag Seed, a blindingly colored, super-gay fantasia based on the black-and-white 1959 film The Bad Seed. Performed by Chicago drag troupe Hell in a Handbag Productions, the outrageous comedy is making its New York City premiere at the iconic East Village performance space La Mama. In The Bad Seed, nervous housewife Christine Penmark (played by Nancy Kelly in the stage and movie versions) slowly discovers that her seemingly perfect, pigtailed daughter Rhoda (Spoiler alert #1!)
may be is a killer. In this unapologetically over-the-top parody, the long-suffering mother is now named “Connie Lingus” and is married to another woman (referred to as “Mother Other”). Aside from those creative changes, our dearest Mommie (played by Ed Jones) is still pretty much faithful to her 1950’s persona, right on down to her oh-so-sensible wardrobe. That said, The Drag Seed adds a very “2022” touch: Rhoda Penmark, who could hold her own with Damien Thorn and Rosemary’s Baby in the Killer Kids Club, is now reimagined as “Carson” (played by Patrick O’Keefe), a seemingly perfect 11-year-old genderfluid boy who’s traded pigtails for fabulous wigs and is deadly serious about using the right pronoun. Carson always gets what they want, and in this play, they REALLY want to win the drag pageant at The Josephine Baker Rainbow Academy for Gifted Students. When Carson loses to fellow student Summer Breeze (Tyler Anthony Smith), Carson vows to get that tiara – by ANY means necessary. The audience also meets Carson’s turban-wearing “auntie”, Miss Charles, who is their drag role model of sorts. Played by David Cerda (who also serves as Artistic Director and Executive Producer), Miss Charles not only has many of the play’s funniest lines (“Whaddya say we put on our best Eva Gabor wigs and go shopping?!”) but gets to poke some much-needed fun at the generation gap in the LGBTQ community. The Drag Seed is amazingly faithful to the original story but goes even further, daring to show the audience the ostensibly forbidden scene which was left to our imaginations in the previous versions. (Oh, the horror!) This reviewer, for one, felt like he was watching a lost scene from the original while high on unicorn dander. (Oh, the privilege!)
On the surface, a movie about a murderous child may seem like an unlikely candidate for a wildly funny, gender-bending, somewhat absurdist stage adaption. But beyond the story’s truly sinister themes, lovers of classic cinema have known for a long time that The Bad Seed had many, many moments that were destined for pure camp. Take this delicious piece of trivia from The Bad Seed’s IMDB page: “Apparently director Mervyn LeRoy did little to persuade Nancy Kelly to modulate her performance for the screen, rather than simply replicate her stage interpretation of this same role. As a result, many of Kelly’s facial expressions, gestures and movements have an exaggerated, ‘stagey’ quality.” The playwright David Cerda, director Cheryl Snodgress, and actor Ed Jones all take Kelly’s over-the-top performance from the original and
run drag race with it. Every delivery of a line, every facial expression, and every gesture whether large or small evokes a laugh from the audience. Jones is indeed a standout, but the entire cast equally excels at comedy, whether it’s physical, wordless, or via their delivery of the play’s infinite number of humorous one-liners. As the foul-mouthed, proudly entitled neophyte drag star Carson, Patrick O’Keefe is a comedic revelation, creating a character who the audience both loves and loves to hate. Things get real when the school’s headmistress Ms. Ficus (played by Danne W. Taylor with priceless wardrobe choices and even more priceless deadpan comedic flair) comes to suspect that the “gifted” Carlson may be skilled at more than just lip-synching and twerking.
In a parallel with the original, the handyman Leroy (named “Lee” here) turns out to be Carson’s biggest nemesis. Played with comedic crypto by Kelly Anchors, the character suffers an outrageously over-the-top (albeit no less dignified) fate as a result of daring to challenge Carson. As Summer’s grieving but humorously inebriated mother Wendy Breeze, Elizabeth Lesinski echoes the cinematic spirit of the original character, who was one sip of bourbon away from going from sympathetic to campy herself. Tyler Anthony Smith is superb at playing multiple roles. Rounding out the cast of characters is Jennifer Frittata, a smart, sexy, and Sapphic criminal psychiatrist who almost un-straightens Connie Lingus’ stockings. Ms. Frittata is perfectly played by Sydney Genco.
In addition to fine comedic acting from all and some very impressive creative touches, a big shout-out goes to the play’s Costume Designer Gregory Graham, Wig Designer Keith Ryan, Makeup Designer (also Sydney Genco), Prop Designer Pamela L. Parker, and Art Director/Graphic Designer Michael S. Miller. Every costume and set piece seem lovingly and meticulously conceived and created with great detail. Many of those said costumes and set pieces turn into sight gags in their own right.
True to the original inspiration, (Spoiler alert #2!) the body count in The Drag Seed is two (Three if you count the one from the past which is revealed towards the end…). This is likely to rise as this drag-tastic play continues its New York City run: Audiences are likely to die from laughter.
Hell in a Handbag Productions’ The Drag Seed continues through Sunday, April 10, 2022 at La Mama The Downstairs, 66 East 4th Street, NYC. Tickets are: Adults: $25 in advance; $30 day of show; Students/Seniors: $20 in advance; $25 day of show. The first 10 tickets to every performance are $10 each (limit 2 per person). See more at The Drag Seed | La MaMa.