Justin Bond and Kenny Mellmanare Kiki and Herb
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman
are Kiki and Herb
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Contrary to initial appearances, Kiki and Herb: Coup de Théatre is no ordinary drag show. Creators and stars Justin Bond (as Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (as Herb) are character actors who have created an elaborate back-story for their alter egos. Kiki is a boozed up sixty-something nightclub entertainer whose best years have long since past. Herb is her faithful accompanist, a gay Jewish retard (that's the way Kiki describes him, at any rate -- Herb doesn't say much). After years of building a loyal cult following, the duo has landed at the Cherry Lane Theater for an open-ended Off-Broadway run.

As usual, Kiki and Herb draw upon an array of musical sources. Coup de Théatre includes their interpretations of Patti Smith's "Horses," Eminem's "Lose Yourself," and Bob Merrill's "Make Yourself Comfortable," among others. The duo's unique song stylings take these tunes and others in unexpected directions, creating both humor and pathos. Kiki's facial expressions alone can tell a thousand tales, and her vocal renditions uncover emotional depths in the material that you weren't even aware were there.

In previous shows, Kiki was wont to mingle amongst the audience, dancing on tables and generally wreaking havoc. She's more restrained at the Cherry Lane as she can only really interact with patrons in the front row and along the aisles. She also seems more polite -- at least, that was the case on the night I attended -- which lowers the danger quotient of the improvised exchanges.

While much of Kiki's patter seems safe and routine, some of it does have the power to shock. Kiki describes her childhood, including her father's attempted suicide after the Wall Street crash of 1929, her family's struggle with poverty, and the love her father had for her. "If you weren't molested as a child," she remarks in a characteristic deadpan, "you must have been an ugly kid." More pieces of Kiki and Herb's sad, pitiful backgrounds come out during the course of the show -- the death of a child, a rape, etc. -- and yet it is all perversely funny. "Time doesn't heal all wounds," declares Kiki. "It just makes you live with them longer."

At times, Kiki's rambling spiels go on a bit too long without making an impact. There's also a bizarre flashback sequence where Kiki enters sans garish age make-up, delivers a few monologues, and sings an anachronistic love medley with Herb. This is the most serious misstep in the production, as it slows the pacing and zaps the theatrical energy that has been generated. It's uncertain whether the blame for this sequence should fall upon the writer/performers or director Scott Elliott; perhaps it was inserted to make the show more "theatrical," or maybe they just wanted to make time for a couple of solos from Herb and a costume change for Kiki. Whatever the reason, it doesn't quite work.

Despite this flaw, the show is sure to please Kiki and Herb's legion of fans: It adds some new material to the duo's repertoire while keeping a few of their most successful stories and jokes. This latest effort may not be the coup that its title promises, but K&H still know how to raise some hell.