Charles Busch is the last direct link to the Theatre of the Ridiculous movement that began with Ronald Tavel and John Vaccaro, then was personified by Charles Ludlam, who broke off from Tavel and Vaccaro's company to form his own Ridiculous Theatre Company, which thrived in the Village from the beginnings of gay liberation through the age of AIDS (Ludlam died of HIV related pneumonia in 1987). The practitioners of Theatre of the Ridiculous created an important form of gay theatre that involved drag and camp. Many of its productions were send ups of B movies or adaptations of classics that had a camp components (Ludlum's CAMILLE, for instance). Busch began in the Village but has become a bridge between the work of the Theatre of the Ridiculous and mainstream theatre. Like Ludlam, Busch usually appears in drag as the leading lady in his productions. Some of his works, like VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM are direct descendants of Tavel, Vaccaro and Ludlam. Even his movies PSYCHO BEACH PARTY and DIE, MOMMIE, DIE!, can be seen as high budget (though definitely low budget as films go) elaborations of their earlier work. Now Busch is more mainstream. His TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE was an Off-Broadway hit.
What could be a greater sign of Busch's move into the mainstream and into theatre history than the audience at today's performance of his latest play, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST. Most of the audience was over seventy and straight. Even the gay men in the audience were "of an age." At his entrance, Busch received the applause traditionally accorded a star. Yes, he was in drag throughout but, compared to what is available on film and television these days, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST was definitely G-rated. In fact, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST is not only a memento of an earlier era in the history of gay theatre; it is also a homage to old-fashioned theatrical farces.
Jimmy, the title character in the play (played by Busch) is an unemployed "tribute artist" who made his career doing drag imitations of past divas of the sort drag queens used to love to "do": Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn. Alas, the Vegas audiences now have no idea who these people are, so Jimmy is irrelevant. He is staying with an old friend, Adriana (Cynthia Harris) a wealthy acerbic grande dame on her last legs who owns a lovely Greenwich Village home. When Adriana kicks the bucket, Jimmy and his sidekick Rita (Julie Halston), a lesbian real-estate agent give Adriana's corpse a false I.D. then dress Jimmy up as Adriana until they can sell the house and pocket the $12 million. Since this is a farce of sorts, their plan is complicated by the arrival of Christina (Mary Bacon), Adriana's semi-hysterical niece who thinks she has a legal right to the house, Christiana's transgendered son, formerly daughter, Oliver (Keira Keeley), and Adriana's shady former lover (Jonathan Walker). All want the proceeds from the house and some catch on to Jimmy's very inconsistent performance as Adriana, a performance, by the way, that is never a very good imitation.
THE TRIBUTE ARTIST is enjoyable fluff. There are a lot of funny lines and some humorous situations. The problem with the play is that Busch is upstaged by everyone else. He's not camp or outrageous enough to hold his own against his wonderful colleagues. When Busch goes camp and gives us a stew of references to old movies, he's great. As Jimmy, he wants too much to be liked -- too much Harvey Fierstein and not enough of the old Charles Busch. It's as if he's a bit unnerved by performing so close to Park Avenue. We get some of his grand mugging, but it doesn't seem part of a consistent persona. I missed the old outrageous Busch. Julie Halston and Mary Bacon are particularly fine -- worth the price of admission -- and Keira Keeley is completely convincing as the adolescent going through a gender identity crisis. Cynthia Harris's Adriana is another weak link. She's not outrageous or nasty enough (we keep hearing what a bitch she is/was but really don't see it) to give Busch's Jimmy much to work with. Of course that's the playwright's fault as much as the actress's. Harris needs to take a lesson from some of the old soap opera bitch dowagers like the late Jeanne Cooper on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. I wish Jonathan Walker showed us some sign of the once sexy Rodney. His machinations were much too obvious.
Carl Andress's staging was too tame, more high comedy than farce. Anna Luizos's set was gorgeous and Gergory Gale's costumes were perfect.
Fun, but too tame. Even this geriatric audience would have welcomed something more outrageous.
THE TRIBUTE ARTIST by Charles Busch. 59E59 Theatres. March 9, 2014.