Eating Raoul is way past its expiration date

Throughout Eating Raoul, a battalion of toned, eager-beaver performers doff clothes down to underthings and shake their eager beavers. This tends to happen in shows directed by Steven Eubank, Kansas City’s young prince of outré musical theater. In shows such as Debbie Does Dallas and 2008’s marvelous Reefer Madness, Eubank elevated such naughtiness into memorable — even thrilling — theater.

This time, I scratched out a grocery list on the back of the program.

That’s not to say these barely clothed cavorters aren’t sometimes diverting. Chioma Anyanwu slinks through some arresting gymnastics, and Ashley Otis unleashes a sexy and comic hell in her scenes as a dominatrix. Eubank and choreographer Tiffany Powell achieve some imaginative flourishes, especially in a tap routine late in the show.

Still, the half-naked dance numbers occur so relentlessly, with so little sense of surprise or occasion, that the eager beavers start to resemble rows of regimented aliens descending in the old Space Invaders game. Wave after wave, they just keep coming.

Occasionally, story breaks out. It’s the late 1960s, and married couple Paul and Mary Bland dream of owning a small restaurant. (They tell us this in the second number, “A Small Restaurant.”) The first number, “Meet the Blands,” introduces the couple and gives that nine-member underpants chorus a chance to ridicule them for the crime of blandness. Perhaps Jed Feuer (who wrote the music) and Boyd Graham (lyrics) are making a joke with these notably bland songs, picking on the leads for being the same as everyone else. They parody bad theater songs by including many of the cliches of bad theater songs, but they’re never actually better than bad theater songs.

Eventually, the Blands decide to finance their dream by filching the wallets of sex deviants whom they murder with a frying pan. Feuer and Graham devote a number to the hatching of this plan, and another — the best staged — to executing a parade of horny loons. There are no songs about the fear of arrest or the ramifications of killing, or what newspapers or police make of dozens of missing persons, or anything, really, that thinking people might consider. There is, however, a song about “hot monkey love” sung by Raoul, the super of the Blands’ building.

Why Raoul has a nightclub act, I cannot say. Nor can I say why the Blands commit their crimes or why anybody in this show does anything at all. Behind every stage direction, I imagine that author Paul Bartel has penciled in “for some reason”: Paul Bland gets fired for some reason; a body slides from the closet for some reason; Mary Bland records a risque commercial to run during a public-access sex show, for some reason. (Actually, there is a reason for that, just not one that makes any narrative sense. The song is the funniest the writers came up with.)

Eubank inspires strong performances from his leads, but his pacing is so swift that scenes never seem to develop naturally between actors. Instead, scenes feel like mills through which the actors are ground. Still, Molly Denninghoff manages to make Mary Bland’s shift from uptight housewife to murderous dom queen amusing. When the climactic “One Last Bop” allows her to plumb up some emotion, she does so movingly, almost as if something has happened in the preceding 90 minutes that mattered. Dana Nicholson effaces himself well as Mary’s nervous husband, Paul, and Francisco Villegas, who turns up just before intermission as Raoul, contributes rich silliness in a role that seems conceived as a dispiriting stereotype. Jenna Huffman’s costumes also entertain.

The show dates back to ’93, and even then was based on the 1982 movie. It hasn’t aged well. Predictably, the Blands begin as sexual naifs, à la Janet and Asshole in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. By the end, Mary Bland has carried on a passionate affair with Raoul and become uninhibited. This builds to one of the few moments even attempting drama. The white-bread housewife must choose between her prim husband and the Latin lover who has ravished her. The show is too arch for us to feel any investment in this, too muddled to make any satiric point about the situation, and too old-hat to provoke us.

Categories: A&E, Stage