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The Confession of Lily Dare

Charles Busch returns in his tribute to the pre-code melodramas of the 1930’s, set in turn of the last century San Francisco.

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Kendal Sparks, Charles Busch, Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson, Jennifer Van Dyck and Howard McGillin in a scene from “The Confession of Lily Dare” at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

The inestimable Charles Busch has come up with something of a dud, as well as redundant, with his latest play, The Confession of Lily Dare. Even its title leaves a lot to be desired. Based on a seemingly endless parade of Hollywood movies of the pre-code era (from the late 1920’s to the mid 1930’s), Busch has pulled out all of his old tricks–cross-dressing, an homage and parody of old movies, long pink arm gloves–and produced something stale and feeble.

It makes you yearn for his stretching himself into new territory, as he did with his glorious The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife back in 2000. (After premiering at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Tale moved to Broadway, where it ran for over two years. And Tale starred the divine Linda Lavin and featured a hilarious Michelle Lee.)

Howard McGillin and Charles Busch in a scene from “The Confession of Lily Dare” at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Lily Dare is more in keeping with Busch’s usual fare such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party. The always reliable Nancy Anderson is no match for either of them here in Lily Dare in which she plays Emmy Lou, a provocative prostitute, with little else to show for herself. And then there’s Charles, in his fabulous wig designs by Katherine Carr and makeshift costumes by Jessica Jahn. (Why do his fabulous costumes always seem less than they should?)

Busch’s customary director, Carl Andress, offers nothing new to the shenanigans. Busch himself does his usual and typical impressions of Mae West, Bette Davis, Dietrich and Stanwyck in his predictable performance, which also proves stale and feeble. It’s almost like he’s giving an impersonator’s act on a stage in a makeshift play, which never coalesces into anything beyond a sketch.

Kendal Sparks and Nancy Anderson in a scene from “The Confession of Lily Dare” at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The vague and empty story, such as it is, starts with Lily as a 16-year-old orphan who’s come from a Swiss convent to her Aunt Rosalie’s home in San Francisco, which proves to be a bordello. Lily meets not only Emmy Lou, the prostitute, but also Mickey (Kendal Sparks), the resident pianist, and Louis, an accountant, who manages the house–Christopher Borg, who also plays a doctor and a priest, during the course of the play, which sprawls out of control. And since the play is set early in 20th century San Francisco, there’s a requisite earthquake, conveyed, lamely enough, by some books falling.

Lily predictably becomes a cabaret singer, providing Busch with an opportunity to sing a Kurt Weill-like song, “Pirate Joe,” written by Tom Judson. She also spends some years in jail, for a crime she didn’t commit. And then there’s the consistently dependable Howard McGillin, underutilized here as a “shady character from a once prominent family who adds a veneer of class to whatever room he’s in.” It’s a line typical of Busch’s intelligence, but leaving you wanting something more.

The Confession of Lily Dare (through March 5, 2020)

Primary Stages

Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.primarystages.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (118 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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