Critics who say Late Night only recycles memorable movies like The Birds and The Stepford Wives forget that entire careers, such as that of the late Charles Ludlam, were built with the same mechanics. Rickshaw Rosie, an original script by Ron Megee, is loosely -- very loosely -- based on the 1936 movie After the Thin Man, in which the urbane Nick and Nora Charles track a case to San Francisco. Late Night's take on it is, of course, campy, witty and oh so gay. But it's also slick, beautifully designed and intelligently drafted, raising the bar for future Late Night productions.
The social-climbing dicks are now a male couple named Nick (David Stone) and Norman (Megee). They live in a New York penthouse with their dog, Attie (Megee's dog, Atticus), and their "colored maid" Beulah, played by the Caucasian actor Gary Campbell under a thick layer of yellow pancake makeup and a hot pink wig. Those colors are significant because they are the only hues in Act One, a detailed salute to black-and-white detective films of the 1930s.
Nick and Norman wake up to a martini and a New Year's Eve party -- and a new case that's fallen into their laps. Philanthropist S. Scott Fittsimmons (Ray Ettinger) and his wife, Lola (Johnnie Bowls), are missing one son, who may be involved with a series of murders (all of the victims are played by Bob Kohler). Knowing they might not be infallible, Nick and Norman enlist Charlie Wang (Philip blue owl Hooser) to aid their search. It's not a cut-and-dried case; goosing the mystery is the Fittsimmons' slinky, up-to-no-good daughter-in-law, Marlene Dokraus (De De Deville).
Act Two opens in Japan. The show is now in Technicolor. ("We're not in Kansas anymore," says Nick, in a nod to The Wizard of Oz's famous switch to color.) A Japanese imperialist (Darryl Jones, equipped with buck teeth to play up yet another old-movie stereotype) and Nazis further complicate the case. Before anyone can solve the mystery, there's the sudden addition of a precious urn, a diamond as big as a baseball, and a Buddhist temple (which, as designed by Mark Manley, is a technical pinnacle for Late Night).
The actors play their roles largely straight, making few of the snide asides Late Night is known for and inserting only a handful of pop-culture references. That's not to say they're straitjacketed -- everyone is true to his characters and to the script. Georgianna Londre's and De De Deville's costumes are luscious (especially the kimonos in Act Two), and Andy Chambers grows ever more skilled with wigs and makeup.
When parody becomes something smarter, it's because actors respect the archetypes they're playing. As offensive as wise Orientals or a "colored maid" might be to some audience members, the cast turns them into warm fixtures of a cockeyed past most of us know only from midnight movies. The members of Late Night know how the images of minorities were abused in old movies yet they're savvy enough to admit they can't change history. They can only parade its ridiculousness before us.