Broadway Blog - The Third Story: Spice It Up For Mama
The Third Story: Spice It Up For Mama
by Michael Dale - February 04, 2009
If you can't tell the players without a scorecard at Charles Busch's charming new comedy, The Third Story, or if you need to visit the rest room in the middle of act one and, when you return to your seat, you get the strangest feeling you've entered the wrong auditorium, that's perhaps a little bit of what the playwright had in mind.
Back in the days when cab drivers thought it was too dangerous to take passengers to Avenue A (That was my experience on Halloween night '86 while getting to a midnight performance of Busch's Gidget Goes Psychotic, later named Psycho Beach Party.) the then emerging dramatist/leading lady of high camp would simply give a curtain speech after every performance announcing that he was working on, say, a new play about Joan of Arc or the Salem witch hunts and whichever idea got the best response from the audience was the one he'd go ahead and write.
But as he explains in his program notes for the new one, "As I get older, it's a challenge coming up with the next story. There are so many to tell and which is the most worth spending a year or more on? I find myself sifting through old files and gleaning inspiration from fragments of forgotten projects. After two false starts, it's often the thirds story that takes off."
That's the gist of The Third Story, where a gangster b-movie evolves into a science fiction fantasy about cloning, sharing the stage with a Grimm-inspired fairy tale until ideas from each blend into one.
Oh yes, and they're all plays within a play, by the way. Because what The Third Story is mainly about is the relationship between Peg (Kathleen Turner), a fabulously clever, frequently boozy 1949 leftist Hollywood screenwriter and her talented son, Drew (Jonathan Walker), who has ditched the movies for a simple life as a mailman. Hitting a creative slump and feeling McCarthyism breathing down her neck ("I have many enemies who would gladly finger me."), Peg wants Drew to collaborate with her on a screenplay, perhaps giving him solo credit if the blacklist makes anything with her name on it unproducible. Besides, though she's the one with the gift for smart dialogue, it's Drew who has the craft to turn it into a story.
When the charismatic Mr. Busch finally enters the picture, he's playing the Bette Davis-ish Queenie (looking smashing in the chic ensemble designed by Gregory Gale) and Drew has stepped into his own work as her tough guy son Steve in the gangster scenario he and Peg start penning. In a comically violent scene, Queenie shows her disapproval for his floozy girlfriend, Verna (Sarah Rafferty), and - suffering from a terminal illness - wishes there was some way she could look after Steve once he's gone.
But before the story can develop, Drew is recalling a fairy tale of a haggard old witch (Busch, looking a little like Bernadette Peters in Into The Woods) who agrees to split a lonely princess (Rafferty) in two, leaving all her better qualities in a half which would attract a handsome prince. This inspires Peg and Drew to go back to the gangster plot and have Queenie seek out the help of a scientist (Jennifer Van Dyck) who can clone her so that the healthy duplicate can take care of Steve.
Buried beneath the zigzagging plot is a theme about obsessive mothers, I'm sure, but as a play with a message, The Third Story gets a little muddy. But with the playwright gracefully indulging in his expert brand of elegant movie queen spoofery, Turner landing dry one-liners with throaty panache and Scott Parkinson contributing a very funny turn as a character named Zygote - a failed cloning experiment who, among other malformations, has a rather untraditional digestive tract - it does succeed nicely as entertainment.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Kathleen Turner and Jonathan Walker; Bottom: Sarah Rafferty and Charles Busch