Charles Busch in the title role of his “The Confession of Lily Dare,” at the Theater for the New City — with limited seats left! — until April 29. | MICHAEL WAKEFIELD
Unbelievable as it seems, genius campmeister Charles Busch has never tackled pre-Code women’s pictures, namely those soaked-hankie epics of beleaguered mother love like “Madame X,” “Blonde Venus,” or “Frisco Jenny.” Consider that genre now officially done, to a side-splitting fare-thee-well, for “The Confession of Lily Dare” is Busch in peak form, both as writer and performer. He’s surrounded by the most wonderful ensemble cast to be found anywhere in the world, delivering both deep laughs as well as the most disarming heartbreak, in an ingenious production that delivers on every imaginable level.
“I’ve always had a penchant for these tour-de-force vehicles, where actresses age from being young and beautiful to hagdom,” Busch said, sliding into a booth at Odessa, definitely in need of a refuel after the workout of his third performance of the highly demanding show. “I always wanted to do that myself and strangely never have, really. Everything you write is personal — you can’t help it, whether you realize it or not. I’m someone who had a mother who died when I was seven. I’ve always been a sucker for any kind of mother love drama: one of my favorites, which is unavailable today, is ‘The Blue Veil’ with Jane Wyman. I used to watch it on the 4:30 movie; it’s based on a French film [‘Le voile bleu’] and there’s some problem with the rights. Joan Blondell was nominated for an Oscar for it. There was a little tiny genre of these films in the early 1930s, all based on ‘Madame X’ — I’m not one for film noir or Westerns — only these obscure little sub-genres no one’s ever heard about. I may be deluding myself, but I’d like to think that someone who’d never seen one of them would still have a good time at this play.”
In this vein, Busch has gotten to play a nun in “The Divine Sister,” a glamorous white diva caught up in 1932 China in love with a savage warlord in “Shanghai Moon,” a perky teen surfer chick in “Psycho Beach Party,” and more. He said that he thought himself lucky to have had all of these opportunities to do his movie fantasies, “Like, wouldn’t it fun to be a devastating concert pianist?”
Master of pastiche comes up a winner with his confession weepie
“With the addition of the word, ‘cunt!,’” I interjected, to use a decidedly un-PC term that keeps hilariously cropping up in his oeuvre.
“Yes,” he laughed, “but you’ll notice I have the lovely, immaculate actress Jennifer Van Dyck here saying the most filthy things. But I won’t say them. Although I did say ‘cunt-face’ in ‘The Divine Sister.’
“My brand of genre parody is so close to the genre that it could not only be a comment on it, but can also reach the same emotional goal. So here, if I‘m doing a tearjerker, I would like to draw some tears.”
That he manages to do, miraculously, in the midst of so much campy fun. I know the maternal confession genre through and through, and yet still found myself misting up during the play’s final moments of raw emotion, which Busch plays beautifully, superbly lit by Kirk Bookman, to evoke those jaw-dropping movie star closeups of the 1930s. Another such moment is when he and his faithful accompanist Mickey (Kendal Sparks, adorable) find themselves down and out, reminiscing about the good old days when they were in the chips.
“I met him when I wrote a children’s musical years ago [‘Bunnicula’], and in this case I really wanted to sing the song and not to a track. So I needed an experienced musician, and Kendal can play the piano. He’s a darling, with a total sweetness. I wrote the part for him, which I enjoy doing for people.”
Busch agreed with me that this was the “Frank McHugh” role, and, as for Howard McGillin, expertly oily, as the suave villain of the piece, “I told him he was ‘Warren William’… these obscure actors, as if anybody wouldn’t know who they were! [Laughs.] I’ve adored Howard for years and only worked with him once before, a one-night fundraiser of ‘Bell, Book and Candle,’ with him as Jimmy Stewart and me, not as Kim Novak, but some variation of all those crazy leading actresses who played it in stock: Roz Russell, Lana Turner. Just a reading but I had all these costume changes, even within scenes, like when I went out into the kitchen and returned in a new caftan, very 1972.”
If any performer has come close to actually stealing a show from Busch, it’s Van Dyck, who is now officially my new favorite New York actress for the hilarious and dazzling range she displayed in a plethora of roles, from crusty bordello madam to decadent German baroness to New York cop to aristocratic foster mother to a key illegitimate infant. I told Busch that she was lucky he isn’t really Helen Lawson or Ethel Merman, who would have had her role cut to ribbons out of competitive jealousy.
“It’s a cliché, but you really are better with good people that make you rise to the occasion. I’m the star of the show but also the playwright, and it behooves me to get people to get all the laughs. I told an actor once, ‘You will be so spoiled after this because I will set you up as it’s in my best interest that you get the laugh, and when it’s my turn you stay clear.
“We were doing ‘The Third Story’ at La Jolla Playhouse and were having a terrible time finding an actress for this frosty lady scientist. Jonathan Walker was playing my lead, a ‘Steve Cochran’ type, and Julie Halston told me, ‘He lives in my building and is married to this wonderful actress, Jennifer Van Dyck.’ We called her agent and she came in and read one line, I think, and we asked her to please play this role.
“We’ve done a number of shows now, and she can play anything, also trouser roles, as she has a kind of Hepburn quality, too. A great actress, who does lots of TV stuff, ‘Law and Order’s, and is the First Lady of audiobooks, lots of awards for that. She’s in this wonderful marriage — they are like the Bonnie and Clyde of the resistance, always getting arrested.”
Matching her, accent for accent, is the ultra-gifted Christopher Borg, as everything from an innocent juvenile (a “Gavin Gordon”) to that bastard’s foster dad (a “John Boles”), who sounds like FDR.
“He’s a total chameleon, a stalwart of downtown, many theater awards. I had needed someone to play the Evil Eunuch in ‘Judith of Bethulia.’ I had seen him in some plays and was close to [gay playwright] Doric Wilson, who died, and I saw Christopher there. So, in the spirit of Doric and Off-Off-Broadway, I was talent-scouting his memorial. I was like, ‘Psst… how would you like to be in my play as the Evil Eunuch, but you gotta shave yourself from head to toe!’”
Holding the whole show together is narrator Nancy Anderson, doing her version of that priceless character actress, Isabel Jewell, who always seemed to be playing a doomed floozie: “I’ve always admired her a lot, from when we did a benefit of ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ with her as Jennifer and me as Helen Lawson. She understudied Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ you know, and went on once. There was something of it on YouTube, which was taken off, but when she sang ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye,’ the audience was cheering. I wrote the part for this fine actress.”
Guiding them all with delicious verve and perfect pace is director Carl Andress, who, for years now, has been George Cukor to Busch’s Katharine Hepburn.
“Carl just gets me and is always a pleasure to work with. Met him when he was 24 and my dresser in the early days when I was doing all these events in drag as this grande dame of the theater, as I felt more comfortable that way than as myself. He was very helpful, picking out drag for me and also my eye during rehearsals. At this one Manhattan Theatre gala, I was doing this monologue I’d done a million times and they asked me if I could cut a few lines in the middle for time constraints. Carl said, ‘You can’t, as that would totally blow it.’ I took his advice and he became my director, as well as one in his own right gradually. He has assembled a great team of designers to work with on sets, costumes, lighting, sound, so helpful with a low budget like we have.”
Jessica Jahn, who did his costumes, was particularly helpful.
“Only one costume — my first one [utterly hilarious]. The others we culled from Theater Development [Fund] workshop, an incredible resource. But we needed someone with a real eye to pick out our very specific needs, from the racks of thousands of costumes they have there. Then Carl and I went out there to Astoria so I could try on what she pulled.
“They were just what we wanted but I was a little dubious about the one I wear as [sensational cabaret artiste] Mandalay. It’s that form-fitting gold sheath and I’m not as thin as I was. It worked but I have never forgotten this review of Bette Davis in ‘Dead Ringer’ which described her as ‘exuberantly uncorseted, her waistline is like a gunnysack of galoshes.’ [Laughs.] For my final costume, I wanted something very simple of silk crepe with a scoop neck in a solid color. She said, ‘Well, okay. I‘ll try…’ and found the most perfect dress, as if I had designed it myself, almost willed into being.”
If you want to see this show, good luck, as it’s pretty sold out with a very limited run. For the productions he does at Theater for the New City, Busch never invites critics or press.
“I was out to dinner with Martha Plimpton last night, and she asked me why I didn’t. I told her it’s such a short run that by the time the reviews came out we would be in the last week and we’re sold out anyway. But with this and the last two I did, they were so good that I kind of regretted it. These shows are fun because we throw them up quickly and it whets my appetite for performing, but it sure is a lot of work.
“I’m in a kind of a bind, careerwise, because these shows with me in drag doing a parody aren’t quite right for Manhattan Theatre Club or other uptown theaters. And do I, at my age, really want to do eight shows a week for 80-year-olds who are asleep before the show? With all the oxygen tanks and colostomy bags bursting, and not a single laugh — I kid you not — so by the time the subscription audience had seen it and my own very gay audience finally came in, who got everything and were wonderful, I was in a pretty bad state. Even with ‘Divine Sister,’ which was a hit, that meant all these performances for $400 a week, horrible dressing rooms. What’s the point?”
Coming up for Busch are a full scale revival of one of his works — which must remain nameless at the moment, as it’s not been formally announced yet — at the Cherry Lane in 2020, and it looks like the film version of his true classic, ‘Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” is finally a real go, starring Bette Midler and Sharon Stone.
“It’s been on and off the table for 17 years, with Bette attached for 15, but it seems to be moving along. I like the director, Andy Fickman, who did ‘Parental Guidance,’ with her and Billy Crystal. He wants to have me very involved, which is rarely the case with the writer, and I keep updating my adaptation. It was very stagebound so I’ve opened it up. There are more characters and her daughter figures more in it. I’m very pleased with it; it all looked dead a year ago but seems very alive now.”
“Allergist’s Wife” is one of his plays with a very healthy regional life.
“My big ones on that score are that one, ‘Die Mommie Die,’ and ‘Psycho Beach Party,’ which gets a lot of college productions. Recently, they did a full run of my ‘Times Square Angel,’ for which I got a nice big check. Andy Halliday had come up with the storyline with me over dinner back in 1984, so I sent him a nice check and he was very moved by it, as he had never received a royalty check before, and felt like a real writer!
“I recently got a huge check from Greece — no wonder they went bankrupt. I called my agent, but it was no mistake. I rarely go to any regional productions, but sometimes I look at photos of them online and don’t even recognize the show! But a very sweet man sent me a videotape of an ‘Allergist’s Wife’ he did in Lisbon. It was all in Portuguese, which I don’t speak, but there were subtitles, and all the jokes landed in the exact same places!
“But this woman in Paris wanted to do a production of it and wrote me, asking, ‘What is this Entenmann’s?’ I replied, ‘It’s a comfort food. Not fancy or expensive.’ Then she asked if I could make the characters not Jewish. I said it was kind of the point of the play and she wrote, ‘Well in Paris we have good and bad Jews.’ I thought, ‘What is this, 1943?’ It never happened, so perhaps it’s just as well. [Laughs.]”
THE CONFESSION OF LILY DARE | Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., btwn. Ninth & 10th Sts. | Through Apr. 29: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | theaterforthenewcity.net/lilydare.html