The Phoenix Theatre is part of the National New Play Network, which presents “rolling world premieres” of new scripts. The play is produced in three or more theaters within a 12-month period. This gives the playwright an opportunity to work with different creative teams and fine-tune the script. Pulp by Joe Zettelmaier, on stage now, is part of that process, so whereas most reviews’ primary focus is on the actors and production, a few words on the story are apropos here.
“Pulps” were the successors of the penny dreadfuls: sensationalistic, fictional stories in ratty magazines that were popular through the 1950s. Zettelmaier sets his story in 1933 around an alcoholic, washed-up private investigator, Frank Ellery. He is approached by a “dame,” pulp romance writer Desiree St. Clair, to solve the murder of her agent. Besides St. Clair, the other suspects are the deceased’s only other clients: sci-fi writer Bradley Rayburn (a nod to Ray Bradbury?), super-hero wannabe Walter Cranston-Smith, and horror fanatic R.A. Lyncroft (an homage to H.P. Lovecraft?). The play is a collection of stereotypes, reflecting the shallow characterization often found in the cheapest of the cheap pulps. While it’s meant to be a send-up, from a script standpoint, it doesn’t deliver. Something of this nature should have more humor written into it, and it should be self-conscious of its own cheesiness. (And yes, I got the point that the author hates critics.)
That being said, the saving grace of the show is the excellent work by its actors and designers. In other hands, it could have fallen flat.
The production opens with period video footage and a look at the revolving stage’s four sets featuring each character. This is a riveting setup from director Bryan Fonseca, lighting designer and technical director Jeffery Martin, and set designer Bernie Killian. Fonseca goes on to direct Eric J. Olson (Ellery), Joshua Coomer (Rayburn), Michael Hosp (Cranston-Smith), Ian Cruz (Lyncroft), and Angela R. Plank (St. Clair) through scene-chomping after scene-chomping scene. Each actor takes his or her character to the limit of camp. Hosp and Cruz especially commit to making their characters so over-the-top that their scenes help propel the languid plot, the gangly Hosp as his bumbling, masked alter ego The Cloak and Cruz as a maniacal summoner of sleeping demon-gods.
The show is worth seeing for the outstanding talent of the performers and creative team alone. And the amazing raspberry coconut cookie-cakes at the concession stand.