Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Although the Broadway stagehands are still on strike, Off-Broadway and a handful of Broadway shows are playing, and are a smart option for strike-stranded theatre fans. Last Sunday, we caught a matinee performance of an Off-Broadway "comedy-thriller" called DIE MOMMIE DIE at the New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). The play stars accomplished playwright and drag performer CHARLES BUSCH who also wrote the play.

Ungallant though it may be, it’s impossible not to speculate on just how old Angela Arden is. Miss Arden is the irresistibly evil has-been heroine of “Die Mommie Die!,” Charles Busch’s happy play about haute homicide in Beverly Hills, and age is definitely an issue for her. In the production that opened last night at New World Stages, Angela (played by Mr. Busch) has to be on the shady side of 50, a time when a gal like her looks into the mirror and sees nothing looking back, “just hair and makeup and some very important jewelry.” It’s a troubled age for a highly sexed former star teetering on the comeback trail.
On the other hand, it’s a terrific age for a drag queen who wants to capture the essence of a Hollywood queen who has turned into a Halloween mask of her former self. Hair, makeup, some very important jewelry: That’s all an enterprising actor needs to become the image of a glamour goddess in her twilight years.
Well, that, and an encyclopedic knowledge of, and bone-deep affinity for, the late-career films of Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Susan Hayward, as well as a host of B-picture actresses who rarely surface on Netflix. As Angela, Mr. Busch — who also wrote and starred in the 2003 film version of “Die Mommie Die!” — doesn’t specifically imitate any of those screen sirens. Yet he manages to embody them all.
Mr. Busch has been putting on transformational eyelashes and bras for three decades now, creating a bright and surprisingly illuminating road map of the phases of female stardom in the woman-eating film industry of yore.
He has been a ditsy ingénue (“Psycho Beach Party”), an exotic woman of the world (“Shanghai Moon”), an earnest emoter at the peak of her respectable fame (“The Lady in Question”) and a claw-wielding sex kitten who never grows old (“Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” the 1980s Off Broadway hit that made him famous).
Sadly, no one in real life — not even Cher — has replicated the blood-sucking rejuvenation process from “Vampire Lesbians.” So it makes sense that Mr. Busch, now in his early 50s (shhh!), has turned to the last working years of the final generation of leading ladies who came up through the ranks of the studio system and found themselves stranded by middle age.
Autumnal stars who learned to substitute exaggerated style for youthful charm have always been a favorite of female impersonators, for obvious reasons. But in “Die Mommie Die!” Mr. Busch, while honoring the Kabuki-like traditions of his trade, avoids the strident masochism (and — dare one say it? — misogyny) that often accompanies such masquerades.
Directed by Carl Andress, “Die Mommie Die!,” which runs a peppy 90 minutes, is infused with the good-natured comic brio that has made Mr. Busch a drag artist whom middle America can embrace. Even theatergoers who don’t catch the copious old-movie quotations, verbal and physical, should enjoy Mr. Busch’s hair-trigger comic timing and rubbery mugging, which brings to mind vintage Lucille Ball. (The association is underscored by Mr. Busch’s choice of red wigs, designed by Katherine Carr.)
The plot is a puréed pastiche of the 1960s diva-with-an-ax flicks that stars like Davis, Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead were reduced to appearing in (“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” “Strait-Jacket” and “Die! Die! My Darling!”), with a dollop of Lana Turner weepies like “Madame X.” Like those movies “Die Mommie Die!” uses luridness as a high-contrast frame for its star’s great-lady gentility. It also ingeniously makes the implicit case that such films were all about female identity crises.
Angela, a popular 1940s songbird whose career hasn’t been on track since the flop of her costume musical, “The Song of Marie Antoinette,” finds herself in 1967 devoted principally to shopping and playing with her aging boy toy, Tony Parker (Chris Hoch). These pursuits are encumbered by her inconvenient husband, Sol Sussman (Bob Ari), a Stanley Krameresque producer of message pictures whose idea of dream casting is Elizabeth Taylor as Billie Holiday.
Angela has no compunctions about knocking off the old killjoy. But she has to hoodwink her disapproving, daddy-loving daughter, Edith (Ashley Morris); her cross-dressing, mommy-loving son, Lance (Van Hansis); and her Nixon-loving, Bible-quoting housekeeper, Bootsie Carp (Kristine Nielsen). In carrying out her crime, which involves a giant enema, Angela finds she also must wrestle with sordid shadows from her past, as the jokes fly by in a delirious hit-or-miss parade.
The film of “Die Mommie Die!,” directed by Mark Rucker, imitated the moody, cheesy lighting, colors and camera angles of period low-budget shockers. A stage version demands a more metaphoric approach, which the technical team here delivers in effective psychedelic style.
The entire physical production has a slickness unusual for Mr. Busch’s cinematic spoofs for the stage, from the opening photomontage of headlines and photographs to the tasteful vulgarity of Michael Anania’s spot-on rendering of a Beverly Hills home. In the film, which featured Jason Priestley and Frances Conroy, the archly artificial acting style matched the physical style.
The performances in the stage version are bigger and cruder, closer to quick-sketch impersonations, which offer pleasures of their own. (I especially enjoyed Ms. Morris’s doom-speaking mod-Electra daughter.) But there’s a disconnect between the rough-hewn improvisational spirit of the cast and the visual smoothness of their surroundings. The homemade, let’s-put-on-a-show look of Mr. Busch’s earlier work is better suited to such shenanigans.
After a point, though, I forgot this nagging discrepancy and relaxed into the entertaining spectacle of Mr. Busch slithering, bouncing and stomping through a series of pitch-perfect hostess outfits (designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case); curling his lip and narrowing his eyes in staggered sequences of freeze-frame attitudes; and talking really dirty in the voice of a grander-than-thou dame.
Enjoy it while you can. Mr. Busch belongs to a venerable downtown-born comic tradition that will some day seem as distant as vaudeville does to us today. The relatively dressed-down naturalism of contemporary movie actresses seems unlikely to produce a new generation of Busches. Who, after all, could make baroque art out of channeling Julia Roberts

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