|L-R: Patch David and Rosalie Burke in THE VANITY. Photo by Nestor Correa Photography.|
The title of The Vanity by Peter Covino, currently premiering at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, derives as much from the antique table inherited by Julian Gray (Patch David) from his mythical ancestor Dorian Gray as from the self-destructive urges that wrought havoc with both their lives. It is a highly stylized musical farce, inspired both by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and by the classic film Sunset Boulevard (with allusions to everything from A Streetcar Named Desire to Death of a Salesman and from JFK’s one liners to Shelley’s Ozymandias), in which events transpire over the course of nearly two decades (from 1947 to 1966).
Claudia Wheelan (Ilene Christen) is the fading studio star who still sees herself as an ingénue (think Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Her husband, Hilton Wheeler (Erik Ransom), is an acclaimed director (largely due to his wife’s stardom) and it is he who discovers Julian, a charismatically handsome but rather innocent youth who has chosen to create a new life for himself in Hollywood. Cast as the star in Hilton’s latest motion picture, Julian has stardom thrust upon him but still appears ready to risk it all when he falls in love with Stella Vaughn (Rosalie Burke). Stella, the makeup girl on the film’s set, also sings at a sleazy club but aspires someday to achieve the acclaim Claudia has known.
When Julian inherits the Victorian vanity table once owned by Dorian Gray, matters quickly get out of hand. As it turns out – time for your suspension of disbelief – Dorian Gray’s demonic Spirit (Brandon Haagenson) resides in the table and the Spirit has a proposition for Julian: it will grant Julian immortality, eternal youth, and a life of sexual and sensual abandon in exchange for Julian’s forsaking Stella and any real chance of true love. It’s just the sort of offer that Norma Desmond or Dorian Gray of Claudia Wheelan would jump at. So how could Julian refuse?
Of course, the Spirit ends up stealing Julian’s soul (and, indeed, comes close to stealing the whole show.) Meanwhile, Julian’s friend Baxter Hughes (Roger Yeh) Is confronting his own demons. He is gay at a time (1947) when homosexuality still was considered to be a mental illness or a vice or both and, in an attempt to conform to society’s norms, he not only marries but fathers a daughter (Kate Hoover). (Minor spoiler alert: It doesn’t really work out well for him.)
One last aside: it is Declan (Remy Germinario), Claudia’s Irish cabana boy who, like everyone else, seems prepared to do whatever it takes to get a chance at Hollywood stardom himself, who sings the musical’s perkiest tune, “Aye, begorrah!” In doing so, he provides further comic relief (not that the show really needed any).