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Nov 10 2023
Everybody's Dead: A Review Of The New Noir Play ODE TO THE WASP WOMAN Comments (0)

Ode-wasp-woman-susan-cabot-sean-young-boyculture(Image via

“Well, what can you say?”

With that tension-breaking line, tragic Hollywood actress Susan Cabot — played with ironic verve by Sean Young in her NYC stage debut —  eulogizes herself in Rider McDowell's awkward yet occasionally compelling play Ode to the Wasp Woman, which briskly chronicles the last two days in the lives of four Hollywood cautionary tales.

Screenshot 2023-11-10 at 1.55.48 AMThe play covers (L-R) Susan Cabot, George Reeves, Barbara Payton & Carl Switzer. (Images via stills)

It is a perfect moment to laugh, one of which Young takes full advantage, screwing up her face conspiratorially, bonding with the audience after we have just watched a dramatization of what led to Cabot's murder at the hands of her own son. Cabot's story — the starlet ended her film career with Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman in the '50s before sinking into depression — is only a quarter of the play, yet it involves the fickleness of fame, mental illness, forced medication, brutal murder and some light incest, making it clear why Young would find the part juicy enough to tackle. She also gets to read from a 1986 copy of the porno mag Gallery about shaved pussies ... and to make an overbearing, insecure, narcissistic mother come off as weirdly sympathetic.

4 SEAN YOUNG in ODE TO THE WASP WOMAN. photo by Maria BaranovaYoung's take on a late cult actress stings. (Image by Maria Baranova)

Young's casting in a play absorbed with the ignominious deaths of four people chewed up by Hollywood is inspired, thanks to her own history with a business she recently called “predatory.” She exudes empathy for Cabot, but also recognizes the lunacy of the situation.

Wasp-woman-boycultureThe real Wasp Woman's demise wasn't pretty, either. (Image via video still)

Never less than entertaining, Ode to the Wasp Woman veers between sincerity and camp, but there is a performance gap — only Young and Rita Louise (who plays multiple roles, like everyone save for Young) have the skill set to ably navigate that journey.

After each subject introduces his or herself at the top of the play — Cabot, Carl Alfalfa Switzer (Joel Alscher), Adventures of Superman star George Reeves (Douglas Everett Davis) and doomed ingénue Barbara Payton (Payton Georgiana) — each story is dramatized, often with literalism and tentative pacing.

Cabot's story is by far the most interesting and best rendered. Payton's story feels undeveloped — she careens from being molested at 13 to being deluged by paparazzi as a movie star to dying of cirrhosis without much impact. Reeves's story has been told many times before, and is bogged down by an ill-advised sequence between a regretfully typecast Reeves and a moronic fan who thinks he really is Superman. Switzer's sad tale is felled by amateurish acting.

Much of the dialogue is distractingly banal, but McDowell does offer quite a few memorable, John Waters-ed down lines, including Louise as the mistress of Reeves sniping of her rival, “Don't use that slut's Christian name!”

Sean-young-boycultureTaking their bows on opening night (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

All of McDowell's choices are big swings. Some are misses (blaring voice-overs), some surprising hits (having each dead character sweetly sing a fragment of a song as their story winds down), but in spite of the wildly uneven results, the overall effect feels strangely fitting for the morbidly nostalgic subject matter.

As for Young, the play's not the thing, but death becomes her.

Ode to the Wasp Woman is at the Actors Temple Theater (339 W. 47th St., NYC) through January 31, 2024.