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The Two-Party System

The most bizarre event of the New York theater season is the coming of two separate shows based on, of all things, a narrative poem from the 1920s, Joseph Moncure March's "The Wild Party." Sensational and shocking in 1928, the book was banned in Boston for its bawdy story of sex, drugs and violence among the beautiful and damned of the jazz age. March (who was the first managing editor of The New Yorker) wrote his poem in a hurtling rush of rhythm and rhyme that raised doggerel to a verbal equivalent of jazz syncopation. William S. Burroughs said: "It's the book that made me want to be a writer." The first "Wild Party" to open comes from the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Gabriel Barre. The second (opening April 13) is a Broadway show coproduced by the Public Theater and movie honcho Scott Rudin, directed by George C. Wolfe ("Angels in America"). It has a bigger budget ($5 million) and bigger names like Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. Which will have the bigger impact remains to be seen--and heard.

The MTC production is, in fact, an explosion of youthful talent that captures the work's libidinous lyricism, like F. Scott Fitzgerald on Spanish fly. The story of Queenie, a blond chorus girl (Julia Murney); her jealous, abu-sive lover, Burrs, a vaudeville clown (Brian d'Arcy James); her slutty friend Kate (Idina Menzel), and the naively romantic interloper Black (Taye Diggs) takes the cliches of the roaring '20s and shakes them into a surprisingly potent cocktail. Andrew Lippa provides an eclectic but effective score, extending March's free-jiving verse into new lyrics, such as Burrs's self-flagellating anti-gospel, "Let Me Drown." This is as lavish as off-Broadway gets, with David Gallo's cubistic set, Mark Dendy's hotblooded choreography and a terrific band led by Stephen Oremus, all marshaled by Barre into a crescendo of debauchery and death.

The cast's closest thing to a star is Diggs, who has been called "the new Denzel" for movies like "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "Go." Not every rising movie icon would return to the stage as part of an ensemble that includes high-voltage work by almost everyone, including Alix Korey's Sondheimian aria as a burned-out gay gal still yearning to live a "well-rendered, one-gendered, lesbian love story." "The Wild Party" is a period piece, but the period might as well be now. The mix of drugs, guns, low life and high society, gang guys and entertainers evokes our own wild partying time of Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez.