Adrift in Macao, 59E59 Theatre, New York

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Christopher Durang wears his erudition lightly. Ever since Meryl Streep starred as the doyenne of Russian-to-English translation Constance Garnett in one of his student plays, Durang has been employing his smarts in affectionate parodies, which act as counterpoint to the grimmer comedies of his three-decades-plus career.

Adrift in Macao, now in a Primary Stages production off-Broadway, belongs in the former category. A musical send-up of film noir, it gives us Mitch and Lureena, Americans who have washed up independently on the title island, off the China coast.

They alight at a local nightclub run by Rick Shaw, a name that tips its fedora at Casablanca and indulges in the kind of groaning wordplay that Durang, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics, adores. Back home, Mitch has been fingered for a murder.

This slender story is sufficient for a silly 90-minute romp through a few black-and-white American B movies, with an occasional out-of-genre gesture toward Hollywood icons such as Carmen Miranda.

The set-up is more than enough for the composer, Peter Melnick, a grandson of Richard Rodgers, to show an array of colours. We hear a mambo, a Latin-tinged singalong, and a torch song that shows off both the smoky voice and the satin-clad figure of Rachel de Benedet, who plays Lureena.

My audience cheered loudest for an uncredited number starring Will Swenson, the show’s Rick, in which he lamented his character’s lack of a showstopper.

But I have to confess a greater affection for “Revelation”, in which Orville Mendoza, who plays an “inscrutable Asian” called Tempura, demonstrates his ability to be chameleonic. Hilarious!

As efficiently as Sheryl Kaller has directed these actors, none of them execute this kind of material with as much panache as the playwright himself. Durang used to have his own smoky-nightclub act with back-up singers called Dawne.

If Adrift in Macao is ever done in its natural setting – a drinks-serving boite – perhaps Dawne can be coaxed out of retirement for the occasion.

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