Charles Busch has fashioned a gleeful love letter to the theater with his seriocomic new play, Our Leading Lady, set backstage at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. on the days surrounding April 14, 1865, the day President Lincoln was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth while watching a performance of Our American Cousin. The play a blend of fact and fiction focuses on a scheming actress Laura Keene, who was on stage that eventful night becoming a footnote in history. From his inspired idea, the talented Mr. Busch has crafted a two act smorgasbord of laughs that bogs down in the somewhat heavy handed second act. Director Lynne Meadow has mined his vision for all its campy comedy, but the play, although vastly entertaining, feels stretched and not always sure of its footing.
Chares Busch is a playwright, performer, and gay drag icon, who made a career out of playing damsels in distress in campy projects he created specifically for himself. Most notable is Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which was one of the longest running off-Broadway plays ever with a run that spanned five years.
In Busch’s fictionalized account based on fact Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew) is attempting to resurrect her career and overcome the failure of her New York company with a secret plan to take over the Ford Theatre. She intends to replace the troupe’s “amateur actors” with more seasoned professionals from New York. The President’s visit to the theater could be just the ticket to lift her sagging popularity.
The first act is packed with campy fun and laughs galore as Keene provokes a dramatic clash of egos while attempting to put the insecure Washington actors through their paces in preparation for the big night. After Lincoln has been shot, the second act turns decidedly serious with the actors trying to make sense of things amidst the investigation into the shooting. We also get a subplot about Keene’s dresser Madame Wu-Chan (Ann Duquesnay), who we learn is really an escaped slave from Georgia disguised as an oriental. Mr. Busch is clearly making a point here about how the two women cannot achieve what they want by being themselves, which may be a comment on success in general or life in the theater.
Kate Mulgrew turns in a haughty over the top performance as Laura Keene, a role that the playwright could have played himself. She plays the part with precision intonations rolling her r’s sounding much like Katherine Hepburn and turning Laura into a theatrical grande dame obscuring the fact she is actually a cockney barmaid with two illegitimate daughters hidden away in a convent.
The Washington core of actors include the handsome leading man (Maxwell Caufield); a tipsy ingénue (Amy Rutberg), a mature character actor (Reed Birney); his untalented wife (Kristine Nielsen); the young good looking understudy (Billy Wheelan); and the company veteran (a delectable Barbara Bryne).
The design team has done an excellent job and the production elements are top drawer. Santo Loquasto has done the sets, Jane Greenwood the costumes and Brian MacDevitt the lighting.
Meadow and Busch teamed up in 2000 for another Manhattan Theatre Club production,
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which moved to Broadway for a successful run. The two have not been as fortunate this time around. Ms Meadow has put together an uneven cast encouraging them to play broadly, which unfortunately emphasizes the plays flaws.
Mr. Busch will be appearing in his hilarious comedy The Lady in Question at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor this summer from August 14 through September 2. He will play Gertrude Garnet in a free wheeling satire of 1940’s thrillers. Mr. Busch last appeared at Bay Street in 2004 in the leading role of Auntie Mame.
… by gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Our Leading Lady opened on March 22, 2007 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Tickets are available by calling 212-581-1212.