Don’t call him a drag queen. “I’m a celebrity tribute artist,” Charles Busch says, in the role of his latest creation, Jimmy, who has lost his job at the Flamingo Hotel’s Boys Will Be Girls Revue in Las Vegas, because nobody is interested anymore in impersonations of Julie Andrews or Pearl Bailey; even when he did his Marilyn Monroe, most people in the Vegas audience thought it was Christina Aguilera.
Of course, that’s just the character Busch is playing. New York will always love Charles Busch, the inspired theater artist whose talents go far beyond impersonation, although in “The Tribute Artist” he does manage to sneak in lightning-quick and hilarious riffs on Mae West, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn as if they too had all lost their jobs and were in an employment office.
Jimmy rents a room in a fabulous Greenwich Village townhouse (lusciously designed by Anna Louizos). His aging landlady, the sophisticated widow Adriana (portrayed by the elegant Cynthia Harris) has rarely left her home for years, and seldom invites anybody to visit. So, when she dies one night in her sleep, Jimmy cooks up a scheme with Rita, his best friend, former stand-up comic partner, current failed real estate and lonely aging lesbian– played by Julie Halston, his long-time partner on stage. Jimmy puts on Adriana’s dresses and assumes her identity, in order for Rita to sell the house. The plan is supposed to make them both rich.
Busch thus sets into motion the mechanics of an old-fashioned farce, which becomes increasingly busy, their scheme foiled by Adrian’s long-lost niece Christina (Mary Bacon) who returns to claim the apartment for herself, Christina’s transgender daughter-turned-son Oliver (Keira Keeley), and then Rodney (Jonathan Walker), a criminal who was once Adriana’s paramour and has his own schemes.
There is something sharp and pleasing about Busch’s subversion of traditional farce; Yes, he’s matured as an artist, gaining mainstream success as the playwright of the Broadway hit, “The Tale of The Allergist’s Wife,” but he has never really abandoned the sensibility that created “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” nearly three decades ago, at a time when just uttering the title gained you some downtown cred. He hasn’t so much toned down his campy conceits and hammy dialogue; he’s made ham seem kosher. He is also generous; each character gets their own comic shtick and crazy monologues, although the one Busch gives himself admittedly tops the others: Jimmy constantly slips into dialogue from 40’s films; it’s not clear whether he himself is completely aware of what he’s doing.
All of this is so clever that it’s with some guilt I admit that my attention began to drift. As crafty as he is as a writer, and spot-on in his comic timing as a performer, two hours of a silly, convoluted plot may be too much to ask of an audience aging along with him.
The Tribute Artist
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
By Charles Busch; directed by Carl Andress; sets by Anna Louizos; costumes by Gregory Gale; lighting by Kirk Bookman; sound by Jill BC Du Boff; music by Lewis Flinn; wig design by Katherine Carr;
Cast: Mary Bacon (Christina), Charles Busch (Jimmy), Julie Halston (Rita), Cynthia Harris (Adriana), Keira Keeley (Oliver) and Jonathan Walker (Rodney).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including one intermission.
The Tribute Artist is scheduled to run through March 16.