It would be hard to find better source material for a camp fantasia than the 1981 film “Mommie Dearest,” the cult favorite in which Faye Dunaway plays the notoriously unhinged actress Joan Crawford.
The film’s many juicy lines and scenes immediately entered the vernacular of a certain generation of gay men and others drawn to its protagonist’s volatile mix of talent and insecurity. A scene in which the actress rouses from bed her young daughter, Christina, to beat her with a wire coat hanger, and another in which she lays the smack down on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola, have served as fodder for untold numbers of drag routines and impromptu barroom re-enactments. (Say the lines “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” or “No wire hangers, ever!” in pretty much any gay bar in America, and you’ll make instant friends.)
The film’s recognizability made it the perfect inspiration for playwright and drag performer Jamie Morris, who penned the parody “Mommie Queerest” in 2003 and has been performing it on stages across the country ever since. A riotous local production of the play, led by Buffalo’s beloved Jimmy Janowski in the role of Joan Crawford and directed by camp champ Todd Warfield, is now running in the Buffalo United Artists Theatre to the delight of sell-out crowds.
As in many productions Janowski helms, the piece is a delight from start to finish. The play is even more scattershot than the already unfocused film on which it is based, which in most cases would be a liability. But in the gloriously inverted world of camp-driven theater, scattershot is a virtue, breaking the fourth wall is encouraged, and raucous audience participation is a given.
Janowski, whose entrances are always met with rapturous applause, gives about as tongue-in-cheek a performance of Dunaway’s famous scenes as possible. He’s helped by the consummate drag performer Bebe Bvulgari as Christina, who took the brunt of the star’s abuse and eventually penned the 1978 poison pen memoir upon which the film is based. Michael Seitz and Chris Standart also do good comic work in a variety of roles.
Warfield also added a series of low-budget, black-and-white video interludes, including a send the film’s opening scene in which Janowski dips his face in a bowl full of ice and vodka and another scene in which he stands outside a local gay bar smoking a cigarette and muttering under his breath, as if to convince himself it was true, “Joan Crawford, Hollywood star!”
The play is a self-consciously drag-infused highlight reel of the juiciest and most absurd movie scenes. How much you’ll like the play depends on your tolerance for ridiculous sight gags and over-the-top references to the fact that the performers are in drag. (Mine happens to be pretty high.) If it’s sophisticated comedy you’re after, by all means head elsewhere.
A re-enactment of the scene in which Crawford cuts Christina’s hair as punishment for one of her many perceived misdeeds involves Janowski diving toward Bvulgari with scissors, tackling her behind a couch and then throwing up tufts of blonde hair into the air. Another scene, in which Crawford insists that Christina eat her rare steak, sends torrents of “steak juice” – water, we hope – spraying into the audience, not unlike a Gwar concert. And so on.
The coat-hanger scene – probably the most famous in the book and movie – lives up to its surreal, psychotic potential. And Janowski’s delivery of Crawford’s oft-quoted speech to the Pepsi board of directors was expertly done and just on the verge of chilling. This is definitely not Janowski’s first time at the rodeo – and we can all be thankful for that.