The Many Great Gals of Charles Busch

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Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist. Photos by James Leynse.
Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist. Photos by James Leynse.
Charles Busch in The Tribute Artist. All photos by James Leynse.

If you woke me in the middle of the night and said “Quick, what’s the truly funniest title you’ve ever heard for a play?,” I wouldn’t need to think about it. I’d immediately snap, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom!” Then I’d repeat it a few times, slapping my thigh or knee or whatever it occurred to me to slap at the moment, for the simple reason that I don’t know of a title for a comedy that gets it all in so hilariously succinctly.

(You say you know another? Prove it.)

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I can’t recall whether I read the title for the first time or heard someone say it. But weeks, maybe months before I’d seen Charles Busch on stage, I was already laughing at something he’d dreamed up. I also figured that if the title had me in stitches, the play would probably do the same and even more. Of course, I was proven right in my assumption.

I’m still laughing whenever Busch comes up with something new, which he has as of the Feb. 9 opening at 59E59 of the Primary Stages production of The Tribute Artist, the title of which isn’t an instant LOL, but when explained early in the proceedings does provoke broad chuckles.

(l to r) Keira Keeley, Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon and Jonathan Walker.
(l to r) Keira Keeley, Busch, Julie Halston, Mary Bacon and Jonathan Walker.

This time out, Busch is Jimmy, an entertainer who’s just been fired from a long stint in a Las Vegas revue. The term “drag queen” enters the conversation, and, taking umbrage, Jimmy points out that his female impersonations — Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe — are best described as the work of a “tribute artist.”

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It’s a comically pretentious phrase, and Busch intends it to be. That’s why an audience-wide laugh erupts. But there’s more to it. When he enunciates the words “a tribute artist,” he accompanies them with a blithe moue.

Maybe the word “moue” itself is pretentious, when “expression” would do just as well. On the other hand, “moue” gets at something about which Busch is a master. (You’re thinking “mistress,” but get over it.)

For moues or expressions are in large part what Busch has been about throughout his career. Yes, of course, all actors trade in expressions — and Busch is an actor. It’s more than that with him, however. Busch is a compendium of expressions collected from the way female sophistication, female glamour with a “u,” was defined by movies of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — by the silver-screen leading ladies under their elaborate coiffeurs and in their ultra-stylish outfits designed by Adrian, Helen Rose and Edith Head.

The Halston-Busch cabal.
The Halston-Busch cabal.

Watch Busch when he’s speaking and, often more to the point, when he’s reacting. What you see reflected with a unique display of broad subtlety are arrogance, self-satisfaction, disdain, disgust, horror, sexual allure, suspicion and affected demurral as filtered through mid-20th-century assumptions about proper female affect.

Often-this is at the core of Busch’s comic genius-he delivers a combination of any of the above within a split second. At other times, he’ll hold one of those attitudes, frequently turning audience-ward as he does. You can almost hear a musical sting under the gaze. He’s after tributing an era at the same time as he’s mocking it, which is the mark of many, if not all, adroit satirists.

If you look at Busch’s plays from another angle, you notice he’s doing a socio-psychological study of distaff affect, and in The Tribute Artist he’s also strongly hinting at a quite different socio-psychological phenomenon. Remember, he’s playing a man named Jimmy. For only the second time in his career he’s written himself a man’s role, this one an impersonator, and it’s difficult not to think Busch writing about himself as well as others who impersonate women.

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What he sees isn’t necessarily rosy. When Jimmy talks about the stars he’s imitated, he reports that they’re no longer wanted in the revue he’s left. His comments could be interpreted as Busch’s foreseeing the fading of that line of endeavor and consequently its practitioners.

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BuschWorld.
BuschWorld.

This is a dark note in a comedy not quite at the level of his best works, though, as directed by Busch regular Carl Andress, it unquestionably registers high on the laff-meter. Here’s Jimmy, who’s present when his landlady Adriana (Cynthia Harris) dies and who decides-egged on by best friend Rita (Julie Halston)-to pretend he’s Adriana. His objective? To sell her valuable West Village townhouse and set up Rita and himself for life.

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Complications and double-crosses follow when Adriana’s hapless niece Christina (Mary Bacon) and transgender son Oliver (Keira Keeley) arrive, followed closely by hotheaded former boyfriend Rodney (Jonathan Walker). Yes, it’s a busy plot with lots of time-consuming exposition while playwright Busch sets everything up for actor Busch and company to reap their eventual yuks.

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On the continuing subject of those yuks: Though Busch knows how to show himself off, he’s the soul of generosity when it comes to handing around the punch lines. The recipient of large bouquets of them is Halston, who’s been a sidekick since Busch’s Limbo Lounge and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom days. In recognition of this, Jimmy-slash-Adrian jokingly refers to Rita as “Ethel” — as in Lucy and Ethel.

Busch knows something else about Halston: he doesn’t need to supply her with gags. If he wants, he can write straightforward lines, confident she’ll find a way to make them giggly. Towards the end of the play, when Halston’s Rita and Walker’s Rodney are declaring their shared dislike, she has only to say “sorry” in her way, and bam!: hilarity. When Jimmy/Adriana keeps quoting from favorite films and yells at Rita for naming the movies the quotes are from, Rita, irate, declares “The majority of people in this room don’t know your references.” Another communal belly-laugh from the crowd, thanks to Halston’s delivery.

Besides foreseeing a less-than-sanguine future for, uh, tribute artists (artistes?), Busch does raise other issues in the new opus, and not for the first time. They’re hot topics like, to name a few, women’s rights, gay and transgender rights and Manhattan real estate. Busch doesn’t stop with plays and acing in them, either. His recent 54 Below act was as accomplished as anything else he puts his hand and heart to.

The bottom line: Charles Busch is difficult not to appreciate as a man or a woman.