BWW Reviews: Charles Busch Plays a Man in THE TRIBUTE ARTIST
It isn't often that Charles Busch plays a male character in one of his self-authored plays. He did it back in 1982 in his solo piece, Before Our Mother's Eyes, and again twenty years ago in You Should Be So Lucky. But the beloved and prolific scribe is much better known for his glamorous turns as his own leading lady.
But that's not to say that he eschews the stylish wigs and chic feminine ensembles for his latest comedy, The Tribute Artist. As you might guess from the title, Busch plays a fellow who, like himself, adorns himself in womanly frocks as a profession. Not a drag queen, the character, Jimmy, insists, but "a celebrity tribute artist."
"I recreate legendary female performers. I'm an illusionist. I don't do this for fun. I'm a professional entertainer," he explains.
Paired with his frequent acting partner, sassy wise-cracker Julie Halston, Busch's latest is a bit like Lucy and Ethel as played by Noel and Gertie, as the two of them brilliantly trade barbed quips while trying to pull off a crazy scheme to acquire some prime Manhattan real estate.
Taking place in the present, the setting is a Greenwich Village townhouse, gorgeously styled with bohemian charm by Anna Louizos. The elderly Adriana, played with divine haughtiness by Cynthia Harris, is happy living a recluse life there, using the Internet to take care of her daily needs.
A yearly houseguest of Adriana, Jerry was recently fired from his long-time gig at the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel's Boys Will Be Girls Revue because younger audiences weren't getting his impersonations of stars like Charo and Julie Andrews. ("Finally, I was just left with Marilyn. She is my masterpiece but most of that Vegas crowd just thinks I'm doing Christina Aguilera.")
When his hostess dies quietly in her sleep of natural causes, Jerry and his real estate agent pal, Rita (Halston) concoct a plot to hide her passing and have him assume her identity until they can sell off the place to the tune of twelve million dollars.
Complications arise, of course, in the form of a visit from Adriana's niece-by-marriage, Christina (comically neurotic Mary Bacon), who comes to inform her aunt that by her uncle's will, she is the legal owner of the building. Her transgendered teenage son, Oliver (Keira Keeley), has identified as the female Rachel up until recently, and Christina isn't adjusting all that smoothly. Keeley is very convincing and endearing as Oliver tries out more traditionally male ways of presenting himself.
Though Jerry and Rita are the ones pulling an illegal scam, the bad guy of the piece is Adriana's younger former lover, Rodney (decidedly uncouth Jonathan Walker), who seems to be dealing in the trafficking of human body parts.
Under the screwball direction of Carl Andress, the antics are fast and funny, with the concept giving Busch plenty of excuses (not that he ever needed any) to slip in salutes to assorted film idols like Norma Shearer and Bette Davis.
At one point a frustrated Rita reminds him, "The majority of people in this room don't know your references."
From the roars of laughter, it's quite obvious she's not including the audience.