As he’s done for close to 40 years, Charles Busch sprinkles his latest campy melodrama with Oscar Wilde wit, Barbara Stanwyck grit, Marlene Dietrich glamour and Mae West shtick: “I don’t usually meet the wives…. except in court,” Busch as Lily Dare vamps in one of her many incarnations. “The Confession of Lily Dare” offers an overlong, convoluted tale that simultaneously pays homage to and parodies a genre of early talkies like Madame X. These movies featured Hollywood divas as fallen mothers who sacrifice all for their off-spring.
In a ceaseless series of outfits by costume designer Jessica Jahn and wig designer Katherine Carr that range from the luxurious to the ludicrous, Busch shows us a woman who survives by adjusting to the times, over some 50 years starting with the turn of the 20th century: first teenage orphan from a Swiss convent; then innocent boarder in a San Francisco bordello, who survives the 1904 San Francisco earthquake; cabaret star renamed Mandalay; unwed mother; framed jailbird who must give up her daughter; whorehouse madam renamed Miss Treasure Jones; convicted murderess.
There are many moments of hilarity to treasure in “The Confession of Lily Dare.” In 1950, standing over Lily’s grave, Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson), a hooker with a heart of gold, recalls her best friend fondly: “She was the type of dame who wouldn’t let a geezer squeeze her tittie for less than a twenty.”
There are even touching moments, when Lily keeps tabs on the daughter she had to give up, who becomes an opera star and marries a prince. It’s a testament to the skills of the six-member cast, many in multiple roles, that they bring out the laughs while making their characters more than just caricatures.
Still, it’s frankly tough to savor the show for its full two hours.
Charles Busch is not Todd Haynes, the filmmaker who in movies like Far From Heaven and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce brings the old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama into the modern age – paying homage without overt parody, and getting away with it. We get hooked.
In “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” Busch’s first big hit, he goes back thousands of years and even makes a stop in 1920s Hollywood, but it’s a quick anarchic comedy with a running time of just an hour. His Broadway debut , “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” is a full-length play, but Busch demonstrated in it that his comic chops can co-exist happily with a cohesive story and well-developed characters that the audience is willing to spend time with. In “The Confession of Lily Dare,” by contrast, we get half a comedy, and half a melodrama, the two halves undermining one another. As entertaining as much of it is, to sit through two hours of it feels like something of a sacrifice.
The Confession of Lily Dare
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane
Written by Charles Busch; Directed by Carl Andress
et design by B.T. Whitehill, costume design by Rachel Townsend, lighting design by Kirk Bookman, sound design by Bart Fasbender, wig design by Katherine Carr, and original song and arrangements by Tom Judson. Mr. Busch’s costumes designed by Jessica Jahn.
Cast: Nancy Anderson, Christopher Borg, Charles Busch, Howard McGillin, Kendal Sparks and Jennifer Van Dyck
Running time: Two hours including an intermission
Tickets: $82 to $102
The Confession of Lily Dare is on stage through March 5, 2020