In a Suspense Thriller at Bay Street
The legend Charles Busch is bringing his particular form of zany theatrical magic to the Bay Street Theater MainStage in a revival of his much acclaimed 1989 satire The Lady in Question, which begins previews on August 14 and will run through September 2.
For the uninitiated the multi talented Mr. Busch is an actor, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, director and gay icon, who may be under the radar to most of the general population, but nonetheless has had a cult following of devotees since the 1980’s. He is the author and star of besides The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and in 2000 he went main stream with the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which garnered him a Tony nomination for Best Playwright. He also wrote and starred in the film versions of his plays, Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die, winning a best performance award for the latter at the Sundance Film Festival. He received a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement in 2003 and made his directorial debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006 winning an honorable mention. He is the subject of a documentary film The Lady in Question is Charles Busch.
I sat down with Mr. Busch in his West Village duplex two days before he was to begin rehearsals for the new production.
Patrick Christiano: How did this revival come about?
Charles Busch: Sybil Christopher at Bay Street loves this play and for years she’s been talking about doing it. Kyle Renick produced the play originally at the WPA and it subsequently moved to the Orpheum. We got the most extraordinary rave reviews particularly from Frank Rich in the Times. This was a very important step in my career and raised me up a real notch. I have always wanted to do it again and it hasn’t been done since 1989, although we did a staged reading for one night in 2001 at the Theatre for the New City. Finally Sybil called and said, ‘let’s do it,’ and I said, ‘I’m game.’ But I had to have Julie Halston do her part again. She has done a number of things at Bay Street and is part of their extended family. So we are thrilled to have her. And Kathy Carr has to do my wigs – the only givens, otherwise I’m yours.
PC: Do you have expectations?
CB: It’s going to be an interesting challenge, a good challenge to wipe away the past and keep an open mind. I don’t ever want to hear myself say ‘the way we did it in 1989 was.’ I am going to watch myself. I want to be really open.
PC: Chris Ashley, who helmed the current Broadway hit Xanadu, is directing?
CB: I have always wanted to work with Chris. I’ve know him a bit socially for years. He was doing plays at the WPA the same time we were, so that will be great. He was so lovely to the actors at the auditions. I got such a good feeling…the way he treated people with great dignity. That tells a lot? I appreciate kindness at auditions.
PC: Auditions can be terrifying for actors?
CB: One of the reasons I have the crazy career I have as a writer/actor…I have a real phobia about auditioning and I took myself out of the running for that kind of career when I was 22.
PC: You don’t audition?
CB: The few times a decade my manager wants me to audition for something I make myself ill and I say, ‘Tell them I can’t come.” I just really get sick and I can’t do it.
PC: I can understand how that might happen.
CB: I have great respect for actors, who put themselves out on line. You’re not selling a thing, you’re selling yourself.
PC: This is one of the reasons you are so special. You give so much of yourself as a performer. Your characters are infused with bits of you. Who else is in the cast?
CB: We have an incredible cast. I have always wanted to work with Matt McGrath. If I was going to be an actor, if that was my career, I would want to be Matt.
CB: Oh gosh! I saw him do something at the Circle Rep years ago. I was enraptured with him. He also replaced the emcee in Cabaret on Broadway.
PC: Richard Kind is in the cast.
CB: Richard replaced Tony Roberts in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and really gave the show a whole new life. I directed a radio production of that play for LA Theatre Works and he did his part again. He’s great.
PC: Sort of like old friends.
CB: Yes we have Perry Ojeda, a good friend of mine as well, and Candy Buckley…I am a big fan of hers. We have all sorts of marvelous people.
PC: How lucky to be surrounded by so much talent.
CB: I am really thrilled and I’m excited to be in a play. I do it so rarely and part of my new year’s resolution is to be on stage more.
CB: Yes, it’s a little scary. I don’t have to memorize anything for years at a time. I do a benefit every two weeks it seems and millions of readings, but I always have the book. It’s a muscle that I think needs to be exercised.
PC: So you just dove in?
CB: I was apprehensive with The Lady in Question, because it’s a really big role, but it came back to me quickly. It’s rather mysterious because it is 18 years ago, but it came back very easily.
PC: Well it’s a well written play.
CB: I think it actually is very well written. As the actor/playwright it would be easy to justify paraphrasing, but I’m trying to be very respectful of the playwright.
PC: You called yourself a playmaker. What do you mean?
CB: I sort of invented that for you just now. I didn’t set out to be a writer. I set out to be a performer and I knew very early that I was an odd type. I was influenced by Charles Ludlam and Jeff Wise. I realized there probably wouldn’t be much money in it, but I liked the idea of creating my own kind of theater or theatrical experience.
PC: So you became a writer out of necessity?
CB: Yes! My love was being on stage, so I had to write material for myself. I started in college at Northwestern. It was about providing myself with material not because I had something to say, but to give myself some marvelous acting opportunity. That’s how I thought for years. The more I did it the more ambitious each production got. In New York my works were performed at the Limbo Lounge in the East Village on Avenue C, but even then all my plays had something more than the spoof of the genre. The Lady in Question was sort of a response to the new age philosophy of the 1980’s that said we chose what happens. I thought if you took that concept too far that could be fun to explore.
PC: Very interesting.
CB: There are so many forms of parody. I am sort of a film historian. My form of parody is so close to the source material that I believe with our particular shows, if you didn’t find it funny, you could still enjoy it as a suspense thriller. I like a roller coaster of tone and emotion and I believe even if you don’t know the genre that’s being spoofed, you know when it’s accurate – some inner voice tells you.
PC: So The Lady in Question is very specific?
CB: Yes, I based it on a 1940 movie Escape with Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor. I love these anti war movies from that era with strong glamorous heroines usually played by Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer or Ida Lupino…women who start out with all the wrong values and in the course see the light and become noble and self sacrificing.
PC: You are probably best known for two vastly different works. The camp classic Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which brought you prominence and the Broadway hit Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which ran for 777 performances.
CB: Yes, I began writing for my company, Theater in Limbo, for these eight actors, who had been in all my shows. We had done so many plays together that I knew how to write around their strengths and weaknesses. It was like having an old time movie stock company. We produced Vampire Lesbians for 55 thousand dollars back then and it’s a miracle it was hit, because we didn’t have a penny to run the show after opening night, but it ran for 5 years.
PC: That is amazing and you haven’t stopped writing ever since.
CB: Yes, and my work has gotten more and more personal. I have become more self reflective and I am clear now about what I want to say and do. I want to perform more. I love being on stage. I have a new commitment to performing, but I also want to be more prolific as a writer.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Tickets for The Lady in Question can be purchased online at HYPERLINK "http://www.baystreet.org" www.baystreet.org or by calling the box office at 631-725-9500