According to director Joe Brancato, Erasmus Fenn is a chain-smoking recluse who writes children's mystery novels and rarely leaves his hideout in the Bronx. He's also the author of Drop Dead Perfect, the new play at Peccadillo Theater Company. He's never attended a rehearsal though. "I think it's awful. I wish he'd show up," says the show's star, Everett Quinton. "If he's crazy, he's crazy...I hate living playwrights," he quipped.
Quinton is the former artistic director of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a role he took over from the company's late founder (and Quinton's partner), Charles Ludlam. Ludlam was legendary for his outlandish plays including Camille, Galas, and The Mystery of Irma Vep, which he wrote, directed, and starred in for nearly two decades until his untimely death in 1987. Ludlam also took on a variety of aliases during his storied career, including Althea Gordon (the name under which he wrote a rave review for his own play Bluebeard). Likewise, Erasmus Fenn is not a real name, but a pseudonym. The tone of this phantom playwright is also eerily familiar.
"Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve," coos a mysterious narrator in the opening lines of Drop Dead Perfect, echoing the first moments of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. "No, really, I do," he says earnestly as he executes a sleight of hand.
The play doesn't just draw inspiration from Williams, however. Drop Dead Perfect has shades of Grey Gardens, Rebecca, The Twilight Zone, and more. "One of the things that moved Erasmus was the disappearance of Little Ricky," explains Brancato, referencing the groundbreaking televised pregnancy and motherhood of Lucille Ball. "It traumatized him when Lucy and Ricky announced that their child was born and Little Ricky appeared on television: It was an actor! Lucy was Lucy. Ricky was Ricky...but where was the real Little Ricky?"
In that vein, the show squeezes in more I Love Lucy references than an issue of TV Guide circa 1953, most notably in the form of a handsome Latin lothario named (what else?) Ricky (Jason Cruz). Ricky is a drifter on the run from his native Cuba, where he was convicted of a heinous crime. He finds shelter in the Key West home of his wealthy spinster aunt, Idris Seabright (Quinton), who is also a painter with a passion for still life. Idris lives with her beautiful young niece, an aspiring modern sculptress named Vivien (Jason Edward Cook). Both women are frequently visited by the family's pill-pushing lawyer, Phineas (Michael Keyloun). Everyone seems to have a deep dark secret.
The motivations of the characters remain as shrouded in mystery throughout the play as the identity of the playwright. Of course, sex isn't far from the surface. "The one thing we will always surrender to is a Latin lover," says Brancato, contending that from the moment Desi Arnaz first sang "Babalu" on TV, we were hooked. "Even today, with Sofia Vergara, the formula still works." In the play, Ricky uses his sex as a weapon, but one can never be sure if he's the one actually in control.
"There's a wonderful ability for a woman to access vengeance with bravura," Brancato asserts, referring to the deliciously vengeful Idris, who is at one moment vulnerable, the next, deadly. "We applaud the diva who wishes to do harm. Everett has captured that so beautifully in a number of characters he's explored."
With copious sexual ambiguity and half the cast in drag, Drop Dead Perfect falls easily within the realm of Quinton's earlier work with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which was renowned for its over-the-top and subversive cross-dressing performances. Quinton joined the troupe in the 1970s, shortly before they found a permanent space at One Sheridan Square (now home to Axis Company). "The Ridiculous is theater of rage. It's at odds with the world," Quinton asserts with a revolutionary fire. "It comes out fighting against a system that is stultifying."
Even though the company folded in 1997, Quinton has attempted to carry the Ridiculous tradition into the 21st century. "The last thing I wrote was called Bitch Slapped by God," he shares before delving into an animated summary of the plot. "It's a story far-removed from the 1950s Southern Gothic melodrama of Drop Dead Perfect, yet the two seem intimately related in sensibility.
Brancato hopes to bring a sense of joyful abandon to the audience of Drop Dead Perfect. "So much of this show is the gut-busting humor of people like Carol Burnett," he says, adding, "That experience is not only contagious, but life-affirming."