Beaux Arts Club opens with a strange sort of duet. Actress Anne Sorce, clad in a mod minidress and a fluffy brown wig, shimmies and swivels around an unnamed man who's been gagged and handcuffed. At one point, she removes a shoe and whacks him with it. Sorce's bumbling awkwardness—there's something seductive about the way she moves, but it couldn't be called sexy—doesn't disguise the more sinister undercurrents lurking beneath. As she lashes the man behind a web of bungee cords and white fabric, Sorce offers coy glances to the audience. Finally tossing a tablecloth over his head, she turns back to us. "Well, that oughta do it!" she squeals.
And like that, we're complicit in the dark absurdity of this Imago Theatre production, written and directed by Carol Triffle. To an extent, an audience is always a conspirator in a live performance. But Beaux Arts Club raises questions about art, taste, criticism and voyeurism in a way that topples expectations, drawing the audience into a twisted, delightful fever dream of a play. "I went to every First Thursday this year," says one of the play's characters. "Turns out everything is art."
The premise is simple enough: Three thirtysomething female friends gather yearly to show off their art, read poetry and drink red wine. Wild giggles, schmaltzy kisses and honeyed voices hardly mask the cattiness and competition. Susanna (Sorce) makes little attempt to hide her eye rolls when Miranda (MeMe Samkow) unveils her photo collage, which looks like something that would hang in a middle-school locker. Miranda and Harriet (Megan Skye Hale) question Susanna's move from painting—her canvases of black dots and swirls crowd her apartment's walls—to 3-D installations, which has resulted in this trapped man.
But Triffle's designs are unconventional, and the play swings between hilariously overwrought dialogue and hallucinatory song-and-dance breaks. The capable cast answers Triffle's demands with exaggerated physicality and unreserved embrace of their preposterous roles. This, along with the persistent air of menace, elevates the action to something more than camp. When Harriet mentions that she keeps all her poetry journals in her car, Miranda asks what she'll do if they're stolen. "How else will I get discovered?" Harriet answers, with the utmost sincerity.
Sorce steals scenes throughout. She jackknifes from feline slinkiness to feral recklessness, gesturing like Vanna White at one point and growling like a dog at another. It's a wildly unusual portrait of a downtrodden and lonely artist, but the electric Sorce makes it work. By play's end, the mysterious man isn't the only one trapped in her web.
SEE IT: Beaux Arts Club is at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 231-3959. 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sunday, June 9. Through June 9. Free, $10-$20 donation suggested.