Reviews

Ibsen’s Ghost ****

Charles Busch’s campy fantasy, Ibsen’s Ghost, delights.

By: Patrick Christiano

March 29, 2024: The incomparable Charles Busch is at it again stirring up a hornet’s nest of fun with his new play, Ibsen’s Ghost, subtitled “An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy,” which is now playing at 59E59 Theaters. The tale presented by Primary Stages in association with George Street Playhouse centers on Suzannah, the widow of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, played by Charles Busch.  Need I say more? Busch turns the bereaved widow of the story into a campy diva on a mission.

Charles Busch

Charles Busch’s campy fantasy, Ibsen’s Ghost, delights.

By: Patrick Christiano

March 29, 2024: The incomparable Charles Busch is at it again stirring up a hornet’s nest of fun with his new play, Ibsen’s Ghost, subtitled “An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy,” which is now playing at 59E59 Theaters. The tale presented by Primary Stages in association with George Street Playhouse centers on Suzannah, the widow of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, played by Charles Busch.  Need I say more? Busch turns the bereaved widow of the story into a campy diva on a mission.

Little is known about the real Suzannah except that she was a central force in the playwright’s life and probably his plays as well. Taking this little nugget of truth, Charles Busch, the clever playwright, has fashioned the perfect vehicle for himself as Suzannah. And then he places her at the center of a madcap tale about a devoted wife fighting to preserve her husband’s legacy.  The evening is directed by Carl Andress, Busch’s longtime collaborator, and under his guidance the gifted cast keeps the action fast and furious.  

Jennifer Van Dyck plays Hannah Solberg, and Charles Busch plays Suzannah Ibsen.

Set in Oslo, Norway in June,1906, the play opens with Suzannah still in mourning and attempting to publish 50 years of letters between her and Ibsen.  However, when Isen’s publisher (Christopher Borg) arrives, Suzannah learns that he thinks her letters are boring. And he informs her that her husband had a secret affair with Hana Solberg (Jennifer Van Dyck), a former protégé, who claims she, not Suzannah, was the true source of Ibsen’s classic heroine Nora from A Doll’s House.

This is beyond belief to Suzannah. And she sets out to vanquish the scheming Hanah and her villainous tale.  Surrounded by a zany cast of characters the conflict between the two women culminates into an over-the-top cat fight, a send -up, reminiscent of classic film noir, just what Busch does best. 

Charles Busch and Judy Kaye.

The performers meet the high bar that Busch sets, from years of perfecting his style. They all bring a sliver of truth to the absurdities and a sense of fun to the entire evening. Van Dyke is a hysterical delight as Hana Solberg. Judy Kaye is Magdalena, Suzannah’s stepmother, a constant presence with a decidedly mischievous streak. Jen Cody is a riot as Gerdy, Suzannah’s loyal housekeeper with a spinal disorder that causes her to walk with a scene stealing pelvic thrust.  Christopher Borg in dual roles as Ibsen’s publisher and later as a former leading lady, the Rat Wife, is a riot. And there is Ibsen’s illegitimate son (Thomas Gibson), who Suzannah must also contend with. The result is a screwball romp deliciously served. 

Busch is expert in the shocked and panicked double take of reactions that his adversaries illicit from him in his silly romp. His outrageous slow-motion processing of any offending information never fails to delight. This is Diva Busch at his divine best having a blast.

Thomas Gibson and Charles Busch.

Paying homage to Ibsen with a farcical twist, the story relies, much like Ibsen’s classics, on secrets that the characters wish to hide. Also, to a lesser degree, the play comments on the challenges of the women, who help talented men build their careers. 

The design elements are outstanding. Shoko Kambara’s turn-of-the-century drawing room set is tasteful and elegant. Ken Billington’s lighting, too, enhances each scene as they draw to a cliff-hanging climax.  The fabulous period costumes are by Gregory Gale. Bobbie Zlotnick is credited with the terrific hair and make-up. 

Charles Busch, Jen Cody, Christopher Borg, Thomas Gibson, Jennifer Van Dyck, and Judy Kaye.

Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy
59E59Theater
59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.= Theater A
Produced by: Primary Stages in association with George Street Playhouse and by special arrangement with Daryl Roth and Ted Snowdon in association with Jamie deRoy
 March 02 – April 14, 2024

Photography: James Leynse