You go to a campfest like "My Deah," John Epperson's new Southern-fried riff on "Medea," chiefly to savor the honeyed venom of its putdowns. The actors in director Mark Waldrop's nimble, winking production let the epithets fly early and often. In quick succession we get "syphilitic old octaroon," "swamp witch," "shanty shrew," "diseased piece of filth," "inbred idiots" and "depraved cockroaches." There's a hail of pejoratives that require no modifier: "strumpet," "snake," "slut" and, the knockout punch among the play's status-conscious Southerners, "trash."
Heavy as the downpour of bitchiness is, though, "My Deah" could use rather more of it, plus a stronger dose of lethal danger. Instead Epperson (better known as the svelte drag diva Lypsinka) settles for a brittle Gothic cartoon that hits many of the plot points, and even samples a bit of the language, of Euripides' Greek tragedy. If the challenge of "Medea" is to convince us that a wronged woman would kill her own children to get back at her wayward spouse, Epperson's solution is to make the play's characters and conflicts so flimsy that there's never a chance we'll feel a thing for them. The climactic orgy of blood-letting is laugh-getting, of course, but this is one case where it would be a lot funnier if it were scarier.
It's a pity, because the brilliant Nancy Opel - who plays both My Deah, a former Louisiana beauty queen, and her ratty, chatty maid Lillie - has the gravity and range to go there. Called upon instead merely to play a deadpan grande dame in a Reba-red wig and a dress that's equal parts Greek robe and Marilyn Monroe (costumes are by Romona Ponce), Opel holds her own as a larger-than-life femme fatale among a gallery of well-drawn drag caricatures: a Barbara Bush-like harridan (Jay Rogers), a Puritan busybody (Geoffrey Molloy) and a flouncy blond boob (Kevin Townley).
The men not playing women are no less broadly drawn: Peter Brouwer as a boorish, one-armed governor, Maxwell Caulfield as My Deah's virile, none-too-bright ex, and Michael Hunsaker as the well-muscled wrestling coach of My Deah's two simpering boys. With his curls and painted-on athletic gear, Hunsaker is a hilarious hunk of eye candy - something of a feat, given that he doesn't get the choicest material. Lori Gardner rounds out the cast as an airtight bimbo.
At one point, My Deah refers to the "fabulous cruelty" of which she's capable. That's a perfect summation of the show's intended balance of swish and bite. This "My Deah" has fabulousness to spare, and some uproariously cheap coups de theatre up its sleeve. But if it scorched even half as much as it flames, Epperson's jokey update might bring down the plantation house.
MY DEAH. Written by John Epperson. Directed by Mark Waldrop. Through Nov. 12 at the Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 W. 36th St., Manhattan. Tickets $35. Call 212-868-4444. Seen Sunday.