By: David Sheward
Any play that features the divine gender-be
nder Charles Busch quoting Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Rosalind Russell in Picnic, and Bette Davis in Now Voyager starts out way ahead in my book. Yes, The Tribute Artist, the latest work from playwright-performer-diva Busch, has a few flaws, but it contains enough laughs, crazy plot twists, and gorgeous gowns worn by Busch to merit a visit.
Unlike many of his previous works such as The Divine Sister, Die Mommy Die, Psycho Beach Party, and the long-running Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tribute Artist is set in a relatively realistic world rather than the bizarre Hollywood dreamscape Busch adores. Busch stars as Jimmy, an unemployed female impersonator, living in the Greenwich Village townhouse of Adriana, an elderly eccentric fashion designer. When Adriana dies, Jimmy disguises himself as her and, with the aid of his best friend and former fellow performer Rita, plots to sell the highly desirable property. But as Rita points out, whenever there’s a perfect scheme in the movies, there’s always one little detail the conspirators overlook that destroys their plan and sends them to the hoosegow.
That little detail arrives the form of Adriana’s alienated niece Christina (a subtle reference to Joan Crawford’s tattling daughter?) who claims the house as her own and moves in with her transgendered offspring Oliver, formerly Rachel. Matters get even more complicated when Oliver contacts Adriana’s old flame, the handsome and dangerous Rodney, and invites him over to get reacquainted. Madness naturally ensues as we discover that Jimmy is not the only one in the crazed household hiding a secret. Busch makes pointed insights about the masks people wear and changing identities amid the gags and movie references, while director Carl Andress keeps the action running smoothly without veering into slapstick. The plot gets too convoluted at times, and Mary Bacon allows Christina’s whining to become too one-note for too much of her screeching self-pitying speeches.
But as with any play written by and starring Busch, he is the center of attention and this time delivers a wildl
y funny turn. It’s not as exaggerated as his more over-the-top divas, but he admirably switches between the "real" Jimmy and his kooky version of Adriana. As Rita, Busch’s longtime co-star Julie Halston makes for a sharp-witted sidekick not unlike Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter. Cynthia Harris is martini-dry as the actual Adriana, Jonathan Walker gives Rodney the necessary rough edge, Keira Keeley is properly boyish as the transgendered Oliver, and, once she settles down, Mary Bacon is a sympathetic Christina.
Set designer Anna Louizos has created the perfect elegant townhouse, and Gregory Gale’s costumes are suitably chic and satiric, just like this fizzy, funny cocktail from one of our most beloved entertainers.
Feb. 9-March 30. 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $35-70. (212) 279-4200.www.ticketcentral.com
THE TRIBUTE ARTIST by CHARLES BUSCH Extends through March 30th
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