Not The Busch Leagues!

The Tribute Artist
 by Charles Busch

Directed by Carl Andress
59E59 Theaters, NYC
Through March 29, 2014

Towards the end of this uproarious farce by veteran playwright and actor Charles Busch, Mr. Busch--as Jimmy Nichols, a long-in-the-tooth “female impressionist tribute artist” (a/k/a unemployed drag performer)--delivers a line that in any other play, comedy or otherwise, would befuddle the audience due to its complete nonsense. Proclaimed in tones of voice that would, in an era long gone by, indicate the pronouncement of a grand life-transforming revelation, Jimmy declares “The more honest you are, the more people believe you.” Without a doubt, only Charles Busch could make such an utterance not only appear reasonable, but in the process bring the house down shrieking with laughter.

The Tribute Artist could be designated a sort of penultimate culmination of Charles Busch’s three-decade career. In many wondrous permutations over the years, Mr. Busch has honored, through skillful emulation, the grand actresses of classic cinema. A younger audience might require a concordance to truly appreciate his amazing characterizations and recapitulation of plot themes in which these actresses trounced about. Here the protagonist, Jimmy Nichols, has enjoyed a long career in Las Vegas, but it has come to a halt (or rather reached its expiration date). His references are lost on a new generation who no longer know whom he is emulating, while those imitating Beyonce and her ilk have taken over. Staying in a well-appointed Greenwich Village townhouse of an eccentric grand dame, Adrianna, he ponders an uncertain future. Joining Jimmy’s lament is his best friend Rita, a brash and undistinguished real estate agent and single lesbian. Adrianna has kept to herself and drops hints of how she leads a reclusive life, paying her bills by computer, keeping her passwords in an old frayed notebook, and shying away from everyone at large. She muses on her past, her lost young love Rodney, and her long-dead husband’s crude family (who mistake as cruelty her “European sense of irony,” as she puts it). Charming and irascible Adrianna falls asleep on her ornate sofa, and is discovered to have expired in the night. Rita and Jimmy concoct a scheme in which Jimmy will impersonate Adrianna in order to sell her twelve million dollar townhouse, and live comfortably ever after. This plan is potentially thwarted by the unexpected arrival of Adrianna’s niece by marriage, the low-born, self-esteem stunted Christina, along with her daughter (or is it son?), Oliver who is well into the process of gender migration into becoming a boy. Christina is the actual owner of the townhouse due to an stipulation in her uncle’s will which reverts ownership to Christina upon Adrianna’s demise. Oliver, wishing to soothe Adrianna/Jimmy in her dotage, locates her long lost love on Facebook: the slimy and disagreeable Rodney. Never at a loss to tell of his far-flung jungle adventures in which he is frequently stripped naked and staked to the ground, ruggedly handsome Rodney severely challenges Rita and Jimmy’s scheme--while prompting Jimmy to consider Rodney as his next boyfriend. (Wouldn’t such a synopsis alone get you into the theater!)

The top-notch cast, spiritedly directed by Carl Andress, carries these high-jinx to breathtaking heights as Charles Busch’s Jimmy tries as hard as he can to get through his charade. In the course of Jimmy’s struggle, Mr. Busch brings into play, in no particular order but with confident grace, the words, vocal tones, and mannerisms of Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Roz Russell, and many others of that "made in Hollywood" era. Further, the character of Jimmy gives Mr. Busch the rare opportunity to portray a "man," albeit in female attire (save for a single brief and revelatory moment). Cynthia Harris was superb as Adriana. She has the kind of presence and ease of character that pulls you in to pay close attention to her every utterance. Mary Bacon as Christina is excellent as the frantic, scattered and earnest niece, managing though it all to, ultimately, be affectingly sympathetic. Keira Keely's Oliver, the cute young daughter (or son, depending on the moment), punctuates the action with her own distinctive brand of gender clarity and confusion via fine comic timing. Jonathan Walker as Rodney is the quintessential shrewd, manipulative, pseudo-macho man. Only an actor of Mr. Walker’s caliber could pull off portraying such a preposterous character, yet still keep it enormously comic. Julie Halston, as Rita, plays off Mr. Busch in a wonderful way that only two seasoned actors, sharing long and productive theatrical heritage in play-after-play, can do. They are a delight to watch.

All the rollicking goings on take place in the sumptuous Greenwich Village townhouse living room set designed by Anna Louizos, which is beautifully lit by lighting designer Kirk Bookman. Gregory Gale’s costumes for the entire cast, along with wigs designed by Katherine Carr, are lusciously gorgeous for Jimmy and sharply character appropriate for the others. (Christina buys all her things at K-Mart, or so it seems.) Original music by Lewis Flinn is lovely in an eccentrically moody way, and sets the tone for pondering what we’ve seen and what’s yet to come.

These days, a more handsome production is hard to come by! In the final scene of The Tribute Artist, when the bluff seems to be unraveling, frantic Jimmy interjects into the hoopla a stream of classic dialogue, and Rita blurts out the references i.e.: "Mary Aster -- The Maltese Falcon". After Rita delivers several more sharply announced citations, Jimmy exclaims "Will you please stop annotating me?" Rita responds with "The majority of people in this room don’t know your references." Alas, Rita’s words referred not only to the characters on stage, but also to much of today’s audiences.

Hilarious as this exchange was in the play, a somewhat disconcerting notion later came to mind: At the beginning herein, I suggested The Tribute Artist may be the penultimate culmination of Charles Busch’s work. It is one which, to be thoroughly enjoyed, requires an audience familiar with cinema history, and its great actors and their mythic performances and motifs. This demographic is dwindling. For example, I was tempted to bring a young actor to the play with me, but refrained from doing so. He certainly would have enjoyed the comedy at face value, since it is without doubt a hoot -- but a fuller appreciation of the evening’s many references would have passed him by. The audience on the night I attended was attuned to the culture Mr. Busch plays upon, and was obviously well acquainted with the references and ready to fly with them. All could not have been more entertained by the play, but other audiences are arising and perhaps Mr. Busch has something other to offer them as well. Maybe it is time for Mr. Busch to move from dwelling on "the classics" of film culture in his oeuvre -- but move on to what?

Perhaps a direction for his future was displayed in Mr. Busch’s mainstream play, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. It opened on Broadway in November of 2000, ran for 777 performances, garnered three Tony nominations, and is now mounted widely. There’s more territory, like that, for the multi-talented Charles Busch to conquer. - Jay Reisburg

Photo credit: ©2014 James Leynse


Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.

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