Chris Wells is a bona fide local treasure; that should be clear to anyone who saw him as a smarmily stentorian Orson Welles in Euphoria, as an unctuous Stanford White in Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, as a Wildean man-boy in A Fairy Tale, even as the cackling mad dad in Bat Boy, or in his various cabaret and club performances. A beefy but delicate man with an equal gift for the hard sell and the soft shoe, for both bitter-queen histrionics and tenderly playful romping, Wells looks like he was born on a stage; one imagines him emerging from the womb and sizing up his audience with a raffish raised eyebrow, followed by a big smile and a song.
What's most startling about his new vehicle Liberty! is the realization that, as much as his presence has dominated shows before, this is the most unfiltered Wells we've had on one bill of fare: He's the show's writer, its emcee, and its lead performer; he acts, dances, and/or sings in practically every scene. Indeed, Liberty! was originally a solo show, and some of its best moments remain spotlight soliloquies that mine the full range of Wells' formidable talents. He and director Tracy Young have added a snappy chorus--Gary Kelley, Regan Forman, Dina Platias, and Don Luce--who match Wells' unseemly energy and quicksilver timing.
Staged as a kind of glad-handing revue that's equal parts story theatre, Vegas showroom, and USO tour, Liberty! tells a two-sided fable about a boy named Freedom who wants to be the Statue of Liberty when he grows up, and the Statue herself, who wants to see the America everyone passes her by to find. Both are played by Wells--Freedom as a sweet, confused young man who wants to "stand for something," Liberty as a fun-loving French girl who leads the audience in a round of "Frere Jacques." They're walking puns just waiting for the satire to stick to them--Freedom dreams of Liberty, Liberty is chased by the feds, etc.--but it is to Wells' and Young's credit that it does stick and that the breezy, ironic tone of Liberty!'s jabs at homeland security, education, prisons, militarism, theatre, and the electoral college gives them sting and bounce. A scene in which Liberty runs off to the circus--a popular American dream, she's heard--and is promptly put on show as an artifact, her curriculum vitae held up for curiosity and mockery, is a rapid-fire epiphany of comic provocation.
As the dreams of Freedom and Liberty inevitably get battered, the show goes a little dopey and slack, though Wells gives each character's precise moment of burnout a passion that feels heartbreakingly personal. But the same point is better expressed in the show's high point, a corner-of-the-stage monologue by America herself--Wells again, as a tired old broad, wrapped in Old Glory, who remembers more innocent days--culminating in a rendition of "God Bless America" that brilliantly showcases his uniquely fluid talent for making showbiz tawdriness thrilling, disturbing, moving, and hilarious all at once.
David O's tight band cooks through seedily slick renditions of patriotic songs and a few dorky original songs, and among the uniformly strong supporting cast, the loose-limbed Platias (choreography by Lindsley Allen) and the chameleonic Luce pull off the biggest turns. Ultimately Liberty! is less a play than just play. That's fine with me: No director plays so well with such high stakes as Young, and few performers run as deep as Wells.