The acclaimed playwright Christopher Durang likes to make a distinction between his satiric plays and his works of pure entertainment. His new musical, Adrift in Macao, which is receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters, is unmistakably intended for the latter category. A plucky little romp through the well-established precepts of film noir parody, Adrift makes no attempt to burden us with messages or morals. It exists simply to make us chuckle — and perhaps to infect us in the process with its all-too-catchy soundtrack.
The story opens in 1950s Macao, China, where a plush nightclub seems to attract nothing but perpetual drifters from the United States. Mitch (Alan Campbell), an unshaven fugitive wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, shows up at the venue searching for a Mr. McGuffin — an elusive Irishman who Mitch says is the real killer. By sheer coincidence, the club’s smooth-talking owner, Rick Shaw (Will Swenson), confesses that he may be able to track McGuffin down. As Mitch awaits news of the Irishman’s whereabouts, he develops an undeniable chemistry with the club’s tough new singer Lureena (Rachel De Benedet), a blonde bombshell who finds Mitch’s gruffness irresistible. Unfortunately for Lureena, the embittered fugitive is more concerned with clearing his name than falling for some broad in a smoky nightclub.
Film noir has certainly been treated to its fair share of parody in recent years. The genre was most brilliantly spoofed in Charles Busch’s hilarious Die, Mommie, Die!, first on stage and then in the 2003 film. Still, Durang’s playful noir send up is not without purpose. The playwright clearly adores films like “Casablanca,” where every line uttered is a either a sweeping metaphor or a profound axiom, and that adoration keeps Durang from rising above his subject matter. As a result, we get not just one-liners about dames and fedoras but also relatable characters and a clever whodunit. The cast does well in keeping up with the story’s manic pace. Particularly strong is Orville Mendoza, as Rick’s enigmatic assistant Tempura. Mendoza takes this intentionally one-dimensional Asian stereotype and, on a dime, transforms it into a performance of incredible comic range.
Adrift in Macao is itself adrift at times, particularly during the first half hour as Durang spends too much time establishing the absurdity of his universe. Most of us are already quite familiar with this crazy world, and we know paying proper homage to it should amount to more than a hill of beans.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, February 2007