Buddy Becker's Big Uncut Flick
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 15, 2009
Buddy Becker's Big Uncut Flick is a dead-on parody of the kind of movies they don't make anymore. Scripted quite brilliantly by Todd Michael—the dialogue sparkles and the plotting is actually rather ingenious—and performed as bravura pastiche by an accomplished ensemble headed by the playwright (in drag, as a femme fatale called Lola Revelle), this FringeNYC entry will bring a smile to the face of any movie buff. Do not expect the jokey/naughty camp that the title suggests (the play's name is, in fact, the only salacious pun in the show), and don't expect the broad slap-shticky shenanigans of a Carol Burnett Show movie sketch. Expect, instead, affectionate and smart satire-cum-tribute (or is it the other way around?), evoking a time when words were diamonds and suggestion was everything.
The title of this play actually refers to its framing device, which is one of those hokey "Dialing for Dollars" afternoon movie shows that were on local TV stations all over the USA when I was a little kid. These were built as distractions for housewives before kids and husbands returned home from school and work; cheesy prizes and chat interrupted grade B films from the '30s and '40s, shown in their entirety but littered with commercial breaks. Buddy Becker is the sleazy host of such a show ("the Big Cut Uncut Flick") on Channel 11 in the Twin Cities. It's 1962; Buddy urges us to forget about those worrisome Cuban Missiles and enjoy today's feature, from 1940—"Passkey to Espionage."
The film-within-the-play is a noir-ish melodrama involving an American private dick named Nick Ormsby, who is on an obscure Caribbean island called Machado (he pronounces it like the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, though the natives soften the "ch" sound). He's searching for his partner, Leland Drake, who disappeared down here a few days ago. Evidence of a charred body bearing the remains of a pinky ring Nick recognizes as Leland's leads him to suspect the worst. Plus, everyone Nick encounters down here—the too-polite police chief Captain Mavros; the suave but suspicious hotelier Alexis Ballin; the sinister Madam of the bordello across the street, Simone La Farge—lets him know that his investigations are unwelcome. Nick is in hot water, clearly in serious danger. What's going on here? Are the Nazis somehow involved?
And then there's Lola, the dame from the Bronx who used to headline at Minsky's Burlesque and is now on the lam after the murder of her boyfriend. (We know in our hearts that she didn't do it.) Lola falls for Nick hard, and he for her. Can they get out of Machado alive and save the world in the process?
I don't want to give the twists and turns of Michael's storyline away here. It's tightly plotted even though it's preposterous, and it has the ring of authenticity in every syllable, almost like a collage of B-movie quips rearranged to tell a new story. Ingenious, is what it is: it's not the kind of stuff that's guffaw-inducing but rather brings a smile of recognition to the lips at the end of every baldly punctuated line. Director Walter J. Hoffman does expert work here, sustaining tone and pace admirably and working with the sparest of set pieces and props (a few chairs and tables, basically) to create scenes that we see vividly in our mind's eyes because we know exactly what a movie like "Passkey to Espionage" looks like.
Michael is spot-on as the bad-girl-with-a-heart-of gold, and he looks terrific in the lavish costumes designed by David L. Zwiers. Jason Griffith matches Michael note for note as the solid, square-jawed, been-there-done-that P.I. Ormsby. Jessica Luck is very funny as one of Madam La Farge's "girls" in the movie sequences and as a bimbo Hollywood starlet in a Buddy Becker segment. Jeff Auer is just right as the slick, slimy Buddy Becker. In a variety of supporting roles in "Passkey," Zach Lombardo and Brian Hopson summon up the spirits of numerous character actor/stock players from Hollywood's Golden Age with real panache.
It all makes for an entertaining hour—a trip backward in a time to a much more innocent era. Nostalgic fun!