“Oh no, nobody’s laughing!” I thought to myself as David Greenspan made his first entrance as Lady Enid in the Bay Street Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep. The campy comedy has been high on my list of Hamptons outings this summer, thanks to my interest in theater, playwright Charles Ludlam and my recent interview with the cast and director. So when Greenspan did his best “Norma Desmond” across the stage to near-silence, I was worried that the audience wouldn’t “get it.” Thankfully, my worries proved unfounded—at Greenspan’s first punch line there was uproarious laughter throughout the house. That’s when I realized that the ticket holders didn’t just “get it”—they were in on the joke.
At the most simple level, Irma Vep is a gothic Victorian melodrama about Lady Enid, an actress who has just married a widower, famed Egyptologist Lord Edward, whose dead wife Irma’s portrait seems to loom over the mansion at all times. Strange things have been happening in and around the estate, and soon Edward is convinced that a vampire may be after them and the house staff, Nicodemus and the maid, Jane. To explain the plot any further would miss the point entirely; Greenspan and co-star Tom Aulino play all of these roles, with Greenspan’s Lady Enid and Aulino’s housekeeper Jane getting the most character development. The story is obviously played for laughs and the performances are very deliberately over-the-top, but at no point did Greenspan or Aulino leave the action of the play or break character for a laugh. What makes the play “work” is that both actors take this silly story very, very seriously.
Complementing the outstanding performances is a slick production design that keeps the audience murmuring with “oohs” and “ahhs” throughout. Mark Mariani’s costumes are gorgeous, colorful and detailed—so detailed, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to figure out how the actors pull off their numerous costume changes. At one point, Greenspan played three different characters in the span of two minutes, and his costumes didn’t show any sign of rush or panic, so kudos to the backstage dressers, whose thankless job keeps the play afloat. The set, designed by Tony Award-winner John Arnone, is highly detailed and stylized; the normal patterns on the floor take the more ominous shape of bats when looked at carefully, and every piece of furniture and door serves multiple purposes. I was constantly wowed as the set seamlessly shifted and changed throughout the show.
Greenspan, Aulino and Director Kenneth Elliott have all worked on the show before, and that comes across in the intentionally over-the-top staging and the way the actors command the stage. Try not to laugh the first time Greenspan stumbles onto the stage as swineherd Nicodemus. Aulino, meanwhile, has such a good grasp on Jane that he would fit right in as a housekeeper in shows like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs.
At first, The Mystery of Irma Vep may seem like it’s not for everyone. Someone sitting a few seats away from me looked at her companion and shrugged, “I guess it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing.” The campy humor and subtle inside jokes may be lost on audiences with less knowledge of old Hollywood and drag performance, but Elliott’s savvy staging keeps the comedy broad and the story clear and succinct. This play, which originally ran in the ’80s, helped define New York’s avant-garde Off-Off-Broadway scene and brought great acclaim to Ludlam’s troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. It’s easy to see why; the play is hilarious, creative and fun. Ludlam passed away in 1987, but his legacy lives on in this wonderful love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and the emerging avant-garde theater culture that he helped create.
The Mystery of Irma Vep runs at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor through July 28, followed by the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum August 6–September 1, starring Peter Scolari, Conrad John Schuck and Jackie Hoffman. For more information and tickets, go to baystreet.org.