Babette in Retreat Review: Justin Sayre reaches toward campy farce

Babette, like Garbo, just wants to be alone. The legendary French courtesan has retired to her country estate,  designed for “trading the sins of lust for a more relaxed sin of sloth,” but she instead is “invaded…like Poland” by a stream of visitors. These include her two adult children, whom she despises, as well as an aging fop and his companion, a 100 year old whore who is deaf, blind,  and toothless, and her constantly defecating dog.

 That’s more or less the set-up of “Babette in Retreat,” the latest play by Justin Sayre, streaming on Play-PerView on demand through April 14, featuring a seven-member cast of beloved queer and downtown theater icons.

After that, though, I can’t tell you what to make of it. 

That’s at least in part because it’s a work in progress, being given its first public reading.

 “Babette in Retreat” suggests an attempt at the kind of campy but pointed farce pioneered and popularized by Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch. But (so far) it only fully realizes some of the elements of the genre:

Performers in drag, what some would now call genderqueer casting. In this production, Nathan Lee Graham portrays Babette,  Becca Blackwell is Marcel, a gardener hired to grow radishes, and Sayre is the old whore Eugenie.

Witty epigrams and one-liners. “Babette” has its share, such as the one about sloth, uttered by the fop and sometime narrator, Dis-Donc (portrayed by Jack Wetherall, of Queer as Folk and Skintight)

Vulgarity. Babette cherishes Hortense (Mary Testa), her cook and confidante, and they exchange a constant assault of unusual endearments, such as “you foul-mouthed trollop,” “you vain shit,”  “you vaginal sore!” Sayre goes overboard with this element through the character of the toothless centarian (which Sayre portrays, mutely; the specifics are described by the other characters)

Deliberately turning societal standards and norms upside down, to comic effect.  It’s hard to know whether we are supposed to find  funny the violently hostile way Babette interacts with her children, Claude (Randy Harrison of “Queer as Folk” and the current “Cock” ), and Gabrielle (Auden Thornton, “This Is Us,”)  “I never took to either one of them. One’s a snail, the other a leach. Two vile things that slithered right out of me. “ Much of the material here seems more suitable for a modern tragedy – with Claude, a conniver whose problems stem from a childhood of being ignored by his mother and adored for his appearance by everybody else; and Gabrielle, a courtesan better than her mother ever was, and even colder.

A spoof of, and simultaneously homage to, old-fashioned popular entertainments, such as movie melodramas and comedy of manners. “Babette in Retreat” is not  (yet) sharp enough to feel like a successful pastiche. Neither is it an over-the-top parody. Part of the problem may be that a farce relies on a manic pace enhanced by physical mayhem, and the opportunities for such physical business are limited in a Zoom reading.

“Babette in Retreat” begins with Dis-Donc promising to transport the audience watching online – who look, he says, to be “in the deepest of mourning” – to “a more beautiful time.” It ends with his wrapping up the narratives of several characters as having found a makeshift but palpable kind of love.  That so much in-between seems deliberately (if comically?) ugly suggests that we are meant to see the play as an exercise in redemption, or at least hope. I hope that the playwright can clarify the story, and reconcile, or at least finesse, the clash of tones in this draft, so that “Babette in Retreat” itself can be redeemed.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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