"Herringbone," now at La Jolla Playhouse starring a puckishly versatile B.D. Wong, is more of an acting feat than a memorable musical yarn -- more showmanship than show.
The work (which had its New York premiere in 1982) requires Wong, the "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" regular who gave an indelible Broadway performance as the gender-scrambling opera diva in "M. Butterfly," to incarnate 11 mixed-nuts characters.
The occasion is a kaleidoscopic tale about an 8-year-old named George who becomes possessed by the demonic spirit of a vaudeville veteran, and if anyone from Actors' Equity is within earshot, one of your union members is being cheated if he's not earning at least quadruple the going rate.
The production -- directed by distinguished acting veteran Roger Rees and featuring an onstage trio led by pianist Dan Lipton, who also fills in as Thumbs DuBois -- puts the focus squarely on its star.
This small and not exactly smoothly structured story (Tom Cone wrote the book based on his play) allows a performer to multiply before our eyes, and Wong proves himself exceedingly adept at theatrical mitosis.
Concentrating at first on George and his parents, Arthur and Louise, a Southern family trying to scrape by in the Depression, Wong slips in and out of personas with the cunning swiftness of an escape artist. Louise's rich brother unexpectedly dies when a casualty of the stock market literally crashes down on his head, and Arthur is licking his chops about the big payday.
Unfortunately, Uncle Billy leaves the family only a bit of cryptic advice: "Culture durin' hard times does real well." The words don't mean much to down-and-out Arthur, but they plant a seed that grows wildly inside him, turning him into a ruthless stage parent who could make dragon-mom Rose from "Gypsy" look like Carol Brady.
And so this adventure to the fiendish frontier of showbiz begins. Bashful George thrives in the spotlight, and his dad is confident that the boy can conquer Hollywood with the right herringbone suit and acting coach.
The outfit is the easy part. (Costume designer William Ivey Long has assembled a darling ensemble that stands in occasionally for the tot.) Finding the right teacher is a good deal more challenging. And Mr. Mosely, the only thespian George's parents know, turns out to have a complicated performing past that includes a partner (Frog of the hoofing duo the Chicken and the Frog), now deceased, with a vicious beyond-the-grave grudge.
The best supernatural stories ("Macbeth," for instance) tend to function just as effectively as psychological allegories, allowing us to have our occult and our rationality too. "Herringbone" is an actor's parable, a spooky lesson about the Faustian bargain one makes for fame.
Driven by his father, George become adopted into another family -- the strung-out ancestry of show people. Arthur thinks he's hit the jackpot when his boy reveals a preternatural gift for dancing, but instead of gaining a fortune he winds up losing control over his son's soul.
Wong and Rees, both Tony-winning actors, clearly have a personal connection to the piece, which was produced last year at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. Too bad their sensitivity and pizazz aren't able to overcome the narrative's sluggish momentum.
There's something awkward about the shift between Cone's story and Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh's lively if forgettable musical numbers -- instead of synergy, there's a stalemate. The dance routines, choreographed by Darren Lee, lend miniature magic, but not even Wong's grace can redeem a leaden plot.
The staging is stark and as seedily theatrical as it should be. Eugene Lee's set, enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Leon Rothenberg's sound design, strips the experience to a histrionic essence.
The better for Wong to display his virtuoso calling. Bright-eyed, often grinning and eager to entrance, he openly delights in the intimacy with an audience. The pleasure of his agile talent permeates the theater, but so too does the wish that we could be seeing this fleet performer in a worthier vehicle.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Villa Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 30.
Price: $30 to $65
Contact: (858) 550-1010
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes