Charles Busch is a gifted writer of comedies that have light hearts and he writes them with nimble fingers. By that I mean they are gossamer — lighter than air, they invite you to join him in a world of wacky people, suitable inhabitants of a midsummer-night’s dream.
He came closer to well grounded people in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. He may have considered playing the title role himself, for he is presently our leading female impersonator. But it’s his one play in which he remained offstage, and with Linda Lavin in the role on Broadway, the play ran for two years and won him a load of nominations and prizes. He likes good stories, and in the current The Tribute Artist he’s written himself a great role, one no one could play better than he. For it requires a female impersonator, a lad named Jimmy, who is a pro (someone calls him a ‘drag queen’ but he’ll have none of it. No, he prefers ‘tribute artist.’)
Jimmy is a pal of Adriana, a wealthy matron of a certain age, who lives very comfortably in her magnificent Greenwich Village town house. She has no relatives except a distant niece and she has the right, granted by her deceased husband, to live in her home until she dies. She’s been something of a recluse, hasn’t left the house in months, and Jimmy is a comfort to her when he comes for one of his extended visits. Jimmy’s best friend is an ambitious but unsuccessful real estate broker named Rita, who has her jaundiced eye on somehow getting this house as a listing. When Adriana conveniently dies peacefully in her sleep, a plot is born that will keep things humming for 2 1/2 hours of comic invention. Niece Christina arrives with her transgendered son Oliver in tow, Busch puts them all in his blender and out comes a frothy smoothie of a play.
The living room, foyer and staircase designed by Anna Louizos tells us a lot about Adriana before the play actually begins, for it’s out there when we arrive. The lady has to be eccentric to say the least, for the room is splashed with color, its major piece of art work is disquieting. And when the play begins we meet Julie Halston and Charles Busch, both swathed in caftans that no one would be caught dead in outside of a Charles Busch comic melodrama.
Halston is a sidekick to Busch, supplying ammunition as Ethel Mertz once did to Lucie Ricardo. She looks somewhat like Charlotte Greenwood, the long legged comedienne who could high kick up to the sky. Ms. Halston’s long legs seem to travel in several directions at once. Her voice is unmistakable, and reminds one of a reindeer in heat. Busch throws one line zingers back and forth, and it’s great fun listening to these two plotting and planning and still managing to be appealing. They may want desperately to be rich but though some of their plans to become so are highly illegal, we find ourselves liking them enough to wish them well.
We next meet Adriana as played by the venerable Cynthia Harris, on loan from the A.C.T. Company of Actors. Ms. Harris takes over the first act. She too is dressed in flowing robes and the three of them make most agreeable company. Once she has the good manners to die of natural causes, she sets the plot moving and it doesn’t stop until the rest of the characters arrive, mix in, and are dispatched. They involve the nasty niece Christina, her hyped up ex-daughter who is now her son Oliver, and a character named Rodney who years ago had been the handsome boy toy of Jimmy. He’s now in his forties, and he joins the others in making clear that he wants what he wants, as do they all.
This sort of froth has to be played with just the right amount of camp, but it’s at its best when a truthful base is present. Busch and Halston have worked together so many times they’ve become a well oiled team and no matter how they disagree about almost everything it’s clear they love each other, a gay man and a lesbian lady, the best of friends. Cynthia Harris. a co-artistic director and founding member of TACT, is a marvelous character actress, who is solid as a rock in playing Adriana, a witty and wise woman of the world. She’s seen it all, and has reached the age where there’s not much more for her to discover, so she goes to sleep, and dies. This play will miss her, but there you are. Life goes on.
The arrival of the rest is where the production falters. Not enough to sink it, but Keira Kelley as the newly minted young man Oliver, Mary Bacon as his/her mother Christina, and Jonathan Walker as Rodney all seem to be rushing to make a train back to the suburbs at play’s end, for they play at fevered pitch, screeching and screaming. Carl Andress directed these three as though they were in another play, and they need work. Monologues are delivered at such speed and volume that laughs are swallowed whole. Ms. Harris’s character has gone to her reward, but Jimmy and Rita are occasionally left listening to these tirades with a look that says: “Are you really going to do it that way?” Mind you, the cutting remarks supplied by Busch the Author, slipped in between the rants, are often hilarious, and speed is better than torpor in a farce, but though the play has only been on for a couple of weeks, the three supporting players perform as though this is the fourth year of the run, and they are simply too broad.
You can still have a very good time, if you don’t mind a little over acting now and then.
Mr. Busch has come up with a complicated plot which works, and it held my interest until the happy ending. It’s an enjoyable romp; I’m just surprised that with the author onstage through most of it, he didn’t whisper to the director, “Hey Mr. Andress, this is a play about me, Julie and Cynthia. Let’s turn down the wattage on the others because in each case they’ve not learned that less is usually more.”
The Primary Stages production of The Tribute Artist is onstage at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.