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.)
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.
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)
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