'The Mystery of Irma Vep' review: Hot punchlines

David Greenspan and Tom Aulino star in "The

David Greenspan and Tom Aulino star in "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, through July 28. (Credit: Jerry Lamonica)

OK. So there's camp. Then there's summer camp. In theater parlance that means the more obvious the joke the better. No one wants to work up a sweat getting the punchline when it's 95 -- even if it's air-conditioned inside.

So the timing of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" seemed perfect, opening July Fourth weekend in the summer-centric Hamptons, of which Sag Harbor is the proud outlier. (No one suggests it should change its name to Sag Hampton.) In this summer of comedy at Bay Street Theatre, the mirth factor either rose exponentially or treaded water (compared to the "Lend Me a Tenor" season opener), depending on your tolerance for the ridiculous.

And ridiculous is the operative word here. As in the late Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, film-noir-loving farce factory from which "The Mystery of Irma Vep" emerged off-Off-Broadway in 1984. Inspired by such literary and movie titles as Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" and Hitchcock's "Rebecca," plus horror genres (the title character is an anagram for vampire), Ludlam's multiple cross-dressing hoot gets a cultured treatment under the direction of Kenneth Elliott, whose collaborations include extensive work with Charles Busch, a past Bay Street contributor who carries on the Ludlam tradition with comic stoicism.

Speaking of tradition, "Irma Vep" often is infected with lack of such respect. And in that sense, it can be said that Bay Street's "Irma Vep" departs from tradition. To take nothing away from their considerable classical and, indeed, comical skills, Tom Aulino and David Greenspan together play eight characters -- male and female -- in progressively rapid 35-costume-change succession.

Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Aulino), the widowed lord of Mandecrest, has taken a new wife, but his servants Jane (also Aulino) and Nicodemus (Greenspan) cannot abide their new mistress, the unctuous Lady Enid (also Greenspan). There's an Act II foray into pyramids of Egypt that deploys another raft of characters and a tenuous story thread needled with dexterous craftsmanship at the end. But the journey along the way is what makes "Irma Vep" worth the preposterous ride.

Certainly, the Victorian/Gothic set by John Arnone, accessorized by Mark Mariani's costumes, anchor the comic visuals Aulino and Greenspan animate. But the choice by director Elliott is a delicate balance between so-called legitimate theater and let-it-rip theatrics. To me, he and his wonderful cast of two nailed it. But on another night, they might miss -- so elusive is the target. Their very efficiency in early quick-change transformation could dull the proceedings. Instead, their alacrity pays off all the more when it becomes intentionally transparent near the end. But it's a narrow window to such rewards. We imagine the actors sweat it out each night.

WHAT "The Mystery of Irma Vep"

TICKETS $57.50-$69.50; baystreet.org, 631-725-9500

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