Review: "Twisted" Fills the Exploitation-Comedy-with-Music Need You May Not Have Known You Had


Written by Joel Greenhouse

Directed by Joe John Battista

Music by Peter W. Dizzoza and Joe John Battista

Lyrics by Joel Greenhouse

Presented by Theater for the New City Executive Director Crystal Field

at Theater for the New City

115 1st Ave., Manhattan, NYC

September 28-October 15, 2023

Andrew Ryan Perry, Xue Yun Zhang, Tony Del Bono, Christine Weiss Beidel, Brian Belovitch, Robert Z Grant, Penny Balfour, Larry Fleischman, Evan Laurence, Maude Lardner Burke, Sevin Ceviker, JC Augustine. Photo: Hillary Wyatt.
In a fog-drenched opening scene featuring sex workers in peril, Twisted, a new play with songs, wastes no time in establishing the existence of an ancient cult that worships a pre-Christian reptilian god. Prior to this beginning, the show projects film-style opening credits full of thunder and lightning and atmospheric bayous, further evoking the exploitation movies to which it pays comedic homage–particularly those of the 1960s, although one might equally be put in mind of works ranging from the recent film Pearl to the pre-1960s pulp stories of Seabury Quinn, who never met a non-Western snake cult he didn't like. Twisted, in other words, makes it clear from the go-go get-go what audiences are in for: a campy, October-appropriate romp in which the hemlines and the body count are equally high. 

Robert Z Grant, Penny Balfour, Brian Belovitch. Photo by John Phelps
Following the opening scene, we are introduced to Renee Flame (Penny Balfour), a down-on-her-luck former B-movie mainstay, who allows her daughter, Phoebe (Maude Lardner Burke), to be confined to a home for troubled youth for crime which she didn't commit. A number of years–and, for Phoebe, a number of electroshock treatments–later, Phoebe departs her prison with a resentment-fueled temper and a determination to track down her mother. Meanwhile, the wonderfully named Romaine Monteblanc de Lacroix (Robert Z Grant) is working on recruiting Renee for a "role" that sees her accompany him to his family's home in a Louisiana swamp. There, Renee meets matriarch Lavinia (Brian Belovitch); brother Sinclair (Andrew Ryan Perry), who wants a normal life but lacks self-control; and household factotum Ida May (Chrstine Weiss Beidel), who is banking on her years of devotion to the family finally being rewarded. But there is also a chance that Renee will meet that aforementioned reptilian god, and what happens if Phoebe succeeds in locating the mother who abandoned her for a decade?

As these narrative arcs bend towards one another, Twisted has a gleeful time thumbing its nose at taboo and decorum, and lest we take any of it too seriously, it even punctuates some of its punchlines with drum accents from its live band (Peter W. Dizzoza on piano, Kevin Murray on drums, Joe John Battista on guitar, and Ron Raymond on bass). The principal characters each get a chance to serenade the audience in funny, character-revealing musical pastiches, and the set design makes effective, sometimes hilarious, use of silhouette work as part of its combination of built and projected elements. In addition to strange screams and shady goings-on, the Monteblanc de Lacroix household is full of enjoyably vivid portrayals of its confidently aberrant characters: Grant plays funny and sinister equally well, while Perry makes a great foil as the put-upon Sinclair, and Belovitch paints overbearing mother Lavinia in delightfully melodramatic strokes. Phoebe's bottled rage, courtesy of an excellent Burke, suggests a parallel with Sinclair, similarly mistreated by his blood relations, and is counterbalanced by Balfour's more calculated, yet sometimes sympathetic, conniving. A range of secondary characters, from Tony Del Bono's unsavory priest to Sevin Ceviker and Xue Yun Zhang's dancers, of both the gentleman's club and ritualistic varieties, round out this colorfully irreverent world.

True to its name, Twisted includes a satisfying final twist to cap off an evening that will be great fun for anyone with an appreciation for the outré cinematic oddities of yesteryear. Any ancient Egyptian reptile god would be more than pleased with Twisted's offering of uninhibited unruliness.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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