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Winging It

Late Night's The Birds doesn't always fly.

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Why is Late Night Theatre, our homegrown specialist in pop-culture perversion, good only half the time?

Certainly its members are a talented bunch, a clutch of smart, funny performers and craftspeople who — at their best — shake together Hollywood satire, chintzy drag glamour and bitchy wit in a cocktail that bubbles up with so many gags and allusions that it can make you lightheaded. In the troupe's current show, which revives its pantsing of Hitchcock's still-crazy classic The Birds, old Hitch himself (Bill Pelletier) welcomes us back from intermission by announcing that he'll now allow his cast — the Late Night crew, not just playing the movie's characters but playing the original's actors playing those characters — to tell us about their experiences making the actual movie.

"To liven things up," Pelletier says, with all the master's froggy pomposity, "we'll do it in the style of Laugh-In. "

Cue the lights and the go-go music. The all-male cast bops with riotous energy until the music cuts out and someone — say, Ray Ettinger as Jessica Tandy as Birds matriarch Lydia Brenner — offers up a quick True Hollywood Story-style monologue about the film's production: Hitch's distance from his actors, his tormenting of Tippi Hedren or, in the case of Ettinger as Tandy, his failure to land an Oscar. The dancing resumes, and the madness mounts. We get bikinied boys doing their best Goldie Hawns; Ron Megee as Tippi Hedren intimating that she has endured some kinky encounters with Hitchcock; and then, from nowhere, Hedren's daughter, Melanie Griffith, in a Nagel-inspired super-shouldered suit, coked up and sporting one of those '80s 'dos so crisply permed that it looks like a basket of curly fries.

This is Late Night at its best, achieving a pure pop fission. Here's a half-century of junk culture smashed to pieces and then Frankensteined back into something nasty, delightful and (for all its rote outrageousness) somehow true — at some level, this garish mess is America. I mean, I have a friend who calls E! the goddamn news.

The trouble is that Late Night so inconsistently hits this high. Almost as often, the pop fizz flattens. After a promising opening, narrated by Pelletier's excellent Hitchcock, The Birds flags for long stretches. Writer-director Megee seems mired by the same laborious setup that makes much of the film a chore. His Hitchcock occasionally apologizes for it ("Scenes like that are why I never won an Oscar"), which is cute, but there's no way around a central problem: too few jokes.

Too frequently, the script substitutes references for wit. For entire scenes, the dialogue consists of song lyrics or the titles of movies in which one of the original actors might have appeared. The Birds hits several such patches.

When Megee runs out of references, he resorts to the hoariest Late Night standby: characters feeling each other up while delivering their lines as if nothing is happening. Devotees might excuse this as tradition, but after 10 years, it just feels lazy.

Still, Late Night's worst is only half-bad. Thanks to clever scripting and staging and a host of outsized performances, the rest froths like the Laugh-In bit. Handled by black-clad boys waving mobiles, the bird attacks are always funny. Better still are the low-tech simulations of the original's most cinematic moments: We get the gas-station explosion in diorama, the crows accumulating on the jungle gym, and — amazingly —a tracking shot to introduce the diner sequence.

Pelletier looks more like Rush Limbaugh than Hitchcock, but he has the voice and bearing and most of the best lines. As Tippi, Megee is so endearingly blank, he almost gets us through the dull patches. He turns a boat ride into meticulously detailed physical comedy and is hilarious when, marching blithely to a senseless death, he announces, "I guess I'll take this not-so-period flashlight into the attic and see what that noise is."

The night I saw the show, the audience — Kansas City's hippest — seemed at times to be competing with one another to announce, through guffaws, which references they'd caught. De De Deville is inevitably called upon to dance to the old Bob Newhart theme; the way the guy behind me whooped in recognition after two notes confirmed this theory: I laugh, therefore I get it. Is this Mystery Science Theater for the loft set?

The great Deville, a stylish slash of near-woman, ad-libbed opening night's biggest laugh. While Deville's Suzanne Pleshette discussed gardening with Megee's Hedren, a cell-phone jingled from the front row.

Megee: "Do you hear something ringing in your garden?"

Deville: "I planted bluebells last spring."

A real joke. For once, the entire audience convulsed together.

But it passed, and soon everyone sunk back into giggling at whatever references they happened to get. During a dry spell, dizzied by all these empty references, I understood why Late Night pulls it off just half the time. When it gives us jokes (as in last month's stellar Bonanza), we all laugh; when it doesn't, we just laugh at what we recognize. I'd never expect the Late Night crew to try to please everyone.

But it's not selling out to aim, sometimes, beyond thirtyish white folks well-versed in Crystal Gayle, Edith Head and the men's room at Missie B's.

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