Caroline Rhea, Siobhàn Mahoney, and Miriam Shor in Mondo Drama(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Caroline Rhea, Siobhàn Mahoney, and
Miriam Shor in Mondo Drama
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The Drama Dept. production of the latest play by Douglas Carter Beane, artistic director of the company and author of As Bees In Honey Drown and other gems, sparkles with the kitschy charm of a vintage sequin dress. That Mondo Drama is less gem than costume-jewelry is the point: The show invites us to contemplate what's valuable, and why, while bouncing through a trashy landscape of pop culture references and wickedly satiric comedy.

The film sub-genre gleefully sent up by this play is that of those nutty '60s Mondo films sparked by the Italian cult classic Mondo Cane. These flicks achieved their greatest success at drive-in theaters; something like present-day reality movies and TV shows, they might be described as human versions of Animal Planet but with less respect for their subjects. Marked by voyeuristic scenes of "shocking cultural practices" from around the world -- everything from Africans carving wooden penises to go-go girls swinging topless on California beaches -- these documentaries were accused of crass insensitivity as well as the inclusion of faked material. In Mondo Drama, video designers Ben Odell and Jon Stern project a few of the lighter-hearted segments of the original movie, with its Oscar-winning lounge music and condescending narration by Stefano Sibaldi, on a downstage screen preceding the show.

These films were more self-aware than their audiences ever realized. Or were they? At any rate, Beane's spoof of the genre is intoxicating; the various sketches of this episodic, revue-style show take us all over the world to make us look at ourselves. Allen Moyer's set apes the interior of a movie theater, with stadium seating opening toward the audience. Here, we are introduced to the three ladies who serve as our guides on this magical mystery tour: Miriam Shor, Siobhàn Mahoney, and Caroline Rhea. Playing multiple roles and listed in the program only as Prima, Seconda and Terza, these women take us first to the meat packing district of New York City -- "the most Mondo place on earth" -- where we discover three transsexuals who aren't what they seem to be.

Rhea, known as a TV talk show host and a stand-up comedian, here exhibits an attractive, endearing presence best described as stellar ordinariness, marked by wholesome looks and a perky mix of cheerfulness and casual despair. She plays an Amsterdam hooker, an African tribeswoman, a member of the "Old White Men's Women's Auxiliary" [sic], and several other outrageous parts adeptly, making one feel that she'd be a welcome addition to the current Saturday Night Live cast. Because the trio is so sharply directed by Christopher Ashley, Rhea's few moments of stiffness are detectable, but these become fewer and farther between as the performance progresses and Rhea becomes more comfortable.

Caroline Rhea in Mondo Drama(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Caroline Rhea in Mondo Drama
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Miriam Shor strides through the show with the confidence of a comedian whose chops are honed to perfection, and it's riveting to watch her. As a neo-spiritual guru, an Irish cleaning lady, an Upper East Side socialite who adopts and fatally neglects a Mexican boy in one afternoon, and the Mona Lisa herself, Shor scores with her total commitment, impeccable timing, and fierce wit. Siobhàn Mahoney also does nice work even though she sometimes lacks focus, almost as if she were reading from cue cards. Together, the cast delivers a seamless set of scenes in which Beane's signature talent with one-liners dazzles again. Just like the Borscht-belt male comedian Bubbe, whom Rhea plays late in the show, Beane keeps 'em coming as he tries to break the theatrical record for pop culture references per minute, slamming show-biz figures and politicos from Donald Rumsfeld (for his "old Europe" comment) to Melissa Rivers ("just because").

A lovely, comic confection, Mondo Drama sours slightly in a few sections but is especially effective in two sequences. The one in which Shor plays the Mona Lisa and Mahoney plays a woman who has had her face surgically altered to resemble the Da Vinci masterpiece nimbly communicates Beane's view of art. The other scene, with Shor's guru meditating in a Catskills hotel-turned-ashram, gives us an answer to the question "What is the nature of God?" courtesy of Bubbe (and Beane): "God is when a joke lands." The larger points that Beane tries to make about our shared need to laugh at the infinite diversity and inherent ignorance of one other are not always as deftly made elsewhere as they are in these scenes.

As Beane satirizes the Mondo films' blatant political incorrectness, we're aware that his nostalgia for their kitschy condescension might not be shared by audience members who are demographically unlike him. It's a safe bet that many people won't find the play's quirky viewpoint as funny as this reviewer does. Mondo Drama has fun with the self-absorption of American culture, which has changed so little that its campy past seems all too like its scary present. This silly/serious play forgives us our superficiality with its good-natured embrace of human foibles.