Return of the Well-Made Play

Julie Halston and Charles Busch in Busch’s “The Tribute Artist.” | JAMES LEYNSE

Julie Halston and Charles Busch in Busch’s “The Tribute Artist.” | JAMES LEYNSE

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Charles Busch is up to his gender-bending tricks again, and the result is an absolutely delightful screwball comedy, “The Tribute Artist,” now at Primary Stages. Busch has penned — and stars in — a comedy reminiscent of the great classics of Kaufman and Hart with a little bit of the Marx Brothers thrown in, not to mention Busch’s own comic sensibility, which is in top form here. As distinct from some of his more antic earlier works, “The Tribute Artist” is a tight, finely crafted comedy (more like his first mainstream comedy, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”), and there are belly laughs and excess aplenty in both the writing and the performances.

The plot concerns Jimmy, a Las Vegas drag queen… errr, “Tribute Artist,” who has found that demand for his tributes to Judy and Liza no longer resonate with audiences who want Beyonce and Rihanna. So, he seeks sanctuary in New York with his acid-tongued, aging friend Adriana, who lives in a luxurious Greenwich Village townhouse. Along for the ride is Jimmy’s former improv comedy partner turned real estate broker, Rita.

When Adriana dies suddenly, Jimmy and Rita cook up a scheme to sell the house and get rich by, as you probably guessed, having Jimmy become Adriana. Of course, trouble ensues — when the real heirs show up and another visitor from Adriana’s past arrives. It’s all deliciously ridiculous, and part of the fun of most Busch pieces is anticipating where he’ll go next — and what movie references he’ll pull in.

Charles Busch and Ken Urban craft excellent, terrifically entertaining plays

Busch shines as Jimmy, and his longtime co-star Julie Halston is just marvelous as Rita. The two of them are a flawless comedy team, completely at home in the world of the play. That, in fact, is why this piece works so well. For all its inanity, the play has an internal integrity that invites you to go along for the madcap ride without questioning the logic. Cynthia Harris is divine as the short-lived Adriana, and Mary Bacon, Jonathan Walker, and Keria Keeley round out the company exquisitely. The lovely set is by Anna Louizos, and the inspired costumes are by Gregory Gale.

To say more would be to give away too much, but under the sure-handed direction of Carl Andress, Busch’s longtime collaborator, the result is a perfect romp and a classic in the making.

Heather Alicia Simms and Jordan Geiger in Ken Urban's "The Correspondent." | JOAN MARCUS

Heather Alicia Simms and Jordan Geiger in Ken Urban's “The Correspondent.” | JOAN MARCUS

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the course of staging a play never runs smooth. It’s more like, to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan, climbing over a rocky mountain. Thank God, then, there are companies like Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which is constantly taking a chance on new plays — often where others fear to go. Its latest venture, “The Correspondent” by Ken Urban, is part thriller, part romance, and completely engrossing and entertaining.

Urban explained the current production grew out of a reading at Rattlestick nearly three years ago.

“Other, more established theaters had passed on it and given me specific notes,” he said. Notes, he added, designed, in the minds of their authors, to make it more “marketable.”

Urban, however, in our conversation — and in published essays — pointed to the challenges and pitfalls playwrights face when they self-censor their work to improve its chances of being produced. Finding the balance to “stay true to what the play wants to be” is the trick.

“It’s worth sticking to because it’s a battle that never goes away,” he said.

Along with Rattlestick, Urban explained, the Flea and Soho Rep have been companies instrumental in supporting his work.

With “The Correspondent,” the playwright’s efforts have yielded a fascinating piece that deals with love, loss, self-recrimination, and hope. It was inspired by a site Urban came across — — that matches dying people with others hoping to send a message to a loved one on the “other side.” He was immediately intrigued by “what would make a desperate person reach out for anything to do with hope.”

In Urban’s play, Philip finds Mirabel, who says she’ll take his message to his wife who was killed in an accident, when she, Mirabel, dies. But when mysterious letters ostensibly from Philip’s wife start to arrive, things get complicated. To reveal any more would wreck the fun. There are fine performances by the three-person company — Thomas Jay Ryan, Heather Alicia Simms, and Jordan Geiger — and Stephen Brackett’s direction makes the most of the human story within the surreal plot twists.

Like “The Tribute Artist,” this is a strong, well-made play, something that’s too rare these days. And to quote Shakespeare, “When they seldom come, they wished for come.”

THE TRIBUTE ARTIST | Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St. | Through Mar. 29: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $70; or 212-279-4200 | 2 hrs., 15 min., one intermission

THE CORRESPONDENT | Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Pl., btwn. Perry St. & W. 11th St. | Through Mar. 16: Mon., Wed.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $55 at or 866-811-4111 | 90 min., no intermission