With a handful of plays -- Native Speech, On the Verge, In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, and now In a Pig's Valise -- Eric Overmyer has established himself as one of contemporary theater's wittiest playwrights. Language-besotted as any die-hard cruciverbalist and hip to the self-referential existentialism of post-modern performance, he keeps his intellect in balance with a deep need to entertain; he's a clown with a thesaurus, an incorrigible punster, and a "prisoner of genre, a captive of kitsch," like the all-singing, all-dancing, trench-coated gumshoe narrator of In a Pig's Valise. Summoned to the Heartbreak Hotel -- on the corner of Neon and Lonely -- by an ethnic folk dancer named Dolores Con Leche who claims someone is stealing her dreams, James Taxi (Nathan lane) poses as a talent scout to investigate an international ring of brain-drainers treasure-hunting "scenarios for the insatiable maw of popular entertainment." On Bob Shaw's ingeniously compact black-and-neon set, director- choreographer Graciela Daniele makes great cartoonish fun out of all this; off-Broadway hasn't had such a dazzling little musical since Little Shop of Horrors. And composer August Darnell (of Kid Creole and the Coconuts fame) is a perfect match for Overmyer's pulpy genre-mashing; there are comic quotation marks around his cheesy Caribbean cha-chas ("Kiss Me Deadly"), his gooey Gloria Estefan-ish ballads ("If I Was a Fool to Dream"), and the hilariously sleazy bump-and-grinds Dolores performs with "the ever-lactating Balkanettes," Mustang Sally and Dizzy Miss Lizzy.

A pop semiotician like Jean Baudrillard could go to town analyzing the junk-culture-eats-itself imagery of Pig's Valise, and that's what makes the play more than a hyperclever goof: underneath the puns and wordplay, it is a metaphysical detective story about the origin of pop-kitsch (a theme throughout Overmyer's work) that treads the same territory as sci-fi renegades William Gibson and Philip K. dick. Musically the shows has a few wrinkles to iron out; Darnell's rock-band arrangements could use more variety, and leading man Lane's singing voice is only passable (though for a snub-nosed butterball, he does a pretty sexy hoochie-koochie dance). The show's sizzling star is Ada Maris as Dolores -- her Betty Boop eye-dance is a great running joke -- but there's also fine, funny supporting work by Reg E. Cathey as a voguing security guard and by Lauren Tom and Dian Sorel as those zesty Balkanettes. (Full Disclosure Dept.: the Second Stage's Robyn Goodman consulted me when searching for composers, so I get a talent scout's "special thanks" in the program.)

7 Days, February 22, 1989