Valley of the Dolls
The Empty Space at the Broadway Performance Hall, 547-7500, $22-$30. Through Feb 9.

"Dolls! Dolls! My beautiful dolls!"

A drug-addled starlet with foot-high hair, strapped to a sanitarium bed, screaming her lungs up for her "dolls"--the special pet name for the red and blue pills she downs in small fistfuls in between hefty swigs of gin. It is actress Sarah Harlett playing... well... not Patty Duke, not Neely O'Hara, but somehow Patty Duke playing Neely O'Hara, the hard-driven, pill-popping ingénue in this wicked little adaptation of the freakishly bad 1967 movie version of Jacqueline Susann's freakishly popular novel. For those of you who don't know (both of you), VOD is the high-strung story of strung-out career girls as they climb and claw their way to... well... the bottom. It's the kind of kitsch that simply cries out to be adapted for the stage, and Jason Cannon, Burton Curtis, and Allison Narver were certainly up for the task.

It could have gone SO wrong....

An adaptation of such melodramatic period camp could easily have devolved into a mindless, slapstick lampoon. But Empty Space's version takes the high road--more or less--and the misguided grandiosity of the story that fuels the humor is left to speak for itself. Meanwhile, we are given some tremendous performances by some tremendously talented actors: Sarah Harlett as O'Hara, Michelle Lewis as tragically doomed porn star Jennifer North, and Suzanne Bouchard as stoic, chain-smoking martyr Helen Lawson.

And then there's Nick Garrison.

Nick--known for his title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch--once again dons wigs and heels to play Anne Wells, the wide-eyed innocent of the story. Totally transcending any issues inherent in the boy-in-a-dress scenario, he takes a big chunk out of the part, chews it up, and makes it--hilariously, brilliantly--his own. The term "scene stealer" seems an understatement, and with such a vivid, solid cast, that is really saying something. ADRIAN RYAN