Since August 2011, when Jimmy Janowski stepped onto the Buffalo United Artists Theatre stage dressed as Tippi Hedren in his own wacky camp adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” he and director Todd Warfield have been picking up steam.
That show marked the promising beginning of an unintentional trilogy of film-to-stage projects, which continued last summer with a riotous production of “Mommie Queerest” and on Friday with “L’Imitation of Life,” a cracked-out transposition of the 1959 Lana Turner film “Imitation of Life.”
The latest Janowski-Warfield camp-tasia is perhaps the greatest achievement in the eye-roll-inducing, pun-laden, innuendo-ridden brand of camp that BUA and Janowski have been honing for much of the past two decades. I don’t think there was a two-second stretch during the entire production during which the sold-out opening night crowd did not sound like a particularly exasperated Hollywood laugh track.
From the moment Janowski strode up the aisle to the customary applause that greets all of his entrances to the final curtain, it was clear that we were watching a master of the form at work. It helped, too, that he was surrounded by the estimable talents of Christopher Standart, Michael Seitz, Michael Blasdell, Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Luther Nelson and Maria Droz, who together make up one of the more memorable casts to share the BUA stage in recent memory.
The show, originally written by the New Orleans-based theater group Running With Scissors and liberally modified for its BUA version, takes the plot of “Imitation of Life” as loose inspiration rather than gospel. In the film, Turner plays a widow and struggling actress whose career takes a turn for the better after she and her young daughter befriend a black mother and her fair-skinned daughter. It’s a film that is at once serious and utterly lampoonable, but the BUA crew has dispensed with all but a touch of its biting commentary on race and ambition.
The running gags in this show are straight out of the junior high cafeteria, but Janowski and company make them funnier than they deserve to be. There is, for instance, the way Janowski always calls Nelson’s character (a black maid she refers to as “a minority domestic from central casting”) by a different name: Aretha, Appolonia, Armageddon, Anatevka – each of which gets a bigger laugh than the one before. Janowski’s exchanges with Standart, who turns in a brilliantly funny performance as the fictional talent agent Mr. Loomis, are worth the admission price by themselves.
The same goes for Warfield’s low-budget video pieces, one of which interrupts the action to show Janowski’s character doing an ad for a toilet bowl cleaner.
There were times when the action stopped completely, as when Blasdell’s character refused to say the n-word, which is written in the script, and subsequently changed it to “knitter” for the remainder of the show. Or when Janowski interrupted Nelson in the middle of a death scene to complain that he was “gunning for an Artie” – the local theater award given out by Artvoice.
At one point, there was a pause in a section of dialogue between Janowski and Droz, who plays Turner’s maladjusted daughter, during which an audience member shouted out a reference to “The Birds.” Janowski screamed “Wrong play!” the audience erupted in laughter, and the whole insane affair continued.
Dozens of other screechingly funny moments pepper the play, courtesy of Seitz as an extremely effeminate Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), Standart and Finnegan in a hilarious burlesque drag number and Blasdell slyly delivering any number of delightfully terrible puns.
By the time “L’Imitation of Life” wound down with an out-of-the-blue dance number that added a final bit of outrageousness to an already batty piece of theater, audience members could not wipe the smiles from their faces. I think we all walked out onto the cold Chippewa Street sidewalk knowing we’d seen something truly special: an actor and his company performing at the very height of their talent.
Four stars (Out of four)
What: “L’Imitation of Life”
When: Through April 6
Where: Buffalo United Artists Theatre, 119 Chippewa St.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org