A rich elderly lady is held captive in her posh townhouse by distant relatives and a former lover all out for her wealth. Any of a dozen Hollywood films from the 1934 Kind Lady to the 1963 Lady in a Cage? No, the new drawing room comedy by Charles Busch entitled The TributeArtist having its world premiere at Primary Stages. The new wrinkle here is that the elderly rich lady is being impersonated by Busch as Jimmy, a Las Vegasdrag queen, in order not to lose a New York townhouse. The play is entertaining but it is overly derivative of those old movies and needs too much suspension of disbelief for its outlandish plot set in a totally realistic setting. The cast includes longtime Busch regulars Julie Halston and Jonathan Walker, and is directed by Busch’s frequent collaborator Carl Andress staging his 11th Busch evening.
Busch plays Jimmy Nichols, a gay female impersonator who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist” famed for his Marilyn Monroe, Mae West – and Pearl Bailey. Fired from his job in a Las Vegas revue, he has returned to the home of the wealthy retired fashion designer Adriana (Cynthia Harris) who has been renting him a room in her palatial Greenwich Village townhouse during his rare visits to New York. After a late evening of trying on original creations by Adriana that she wishes to give away, Jimmy and his best lesbian friend, Rita (Halston), known as “the worst real estate agent in New York,” wake up to find that Adriana has died in her sleep. Aware that Adriana had no will and no heirs, Rita suggests that they give Adriana a false identity and that Jimmy impersonate her until they can sell the townhouse with its crystal chandeliers, wedding cake ceilings and objets d’art and split the haul.
Unfortunately, when the first prospective buyer goes to do a title search, it appears that Adriana’ slate husband left the townhouse to Adriana for her life but then it goes to his niece Christina (Mary Bacon) from Milwaukee. The paranoid and hypochondriac Christina and her transgendered teenager formerly Rachel (Keira Keeley) and now known as Oliver show up as soon as they get wind of this attempt to sell the house. Next they have moved in with Jimmy who has to keep up the impersonation for these relatives he has never seen.
Trying to get in his Aunt Adriana’s good graces, Oliver locates Rodney Ashe (Walker), once an adonis and her former lover whom she hasn’t seen in 25 years, and invites him to make a surprise visit. However, Rodney, a sociopath and con-artist, quickly guesses that Jimmy isn’t the Adriana he used to know and moves in to more easily blackmail him. With Rita now on the premises in order to protect her windfall, the house is suddenly full of desperate people all trying to keep up their impersonations for the benefit of the others. Jimmy finds himself suddenly trapped in this snare of his own devising.
While the play has some hilarious putdowns and some classic comic situations, it relies too heavily on knowledge of female star vehicles from the studio era with the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Norma Shearer, Vivien Leigh and Rosalind Russell. All of Busch’s characters are bitchy and acerbic and as such not particularly likeable. Harris as the elegantly caustic Adriana who disappears at the end of the first scene is best both because her digs seem deserved and she doesn’t stay around long enough to become tiresome. As the abrasive Rita with her biting wit, Halston has played this role many times before in roles of other Busch vehicles crafted for her. Busch is always fun to watch and listen to but almost wears out his welcome as the movie quoting, drag queen Jimmy aka Adriana who can’t seem to distinguish illusion from reality.
The other roles are rather thankless and the actors can be forgiven for being uncomfortable with them. As Rodney, Walker is playing a man who was quite physically desirable 25 years ago but hasn’t aged all that well. Sporting a horseshoe mustache and longish hair, he doesn’t exactly remind you of the model type even after 25 years. His spitefulness as the much abused Rodney (or so he says) gets to be one-note in the course of the play. Bacon’s Christina is a woman who is always complaining either about her disappointments in life or her near-fatal accidents, while as the girl now a boy, Keeley maintains a rather bland androgynous presence.
The physical production is stunning. Anna Louizos’ front parlor for the West Village townhouse is a veritable treasure chest of rugs, French provincial furniture, matching flowered print-covered sofa and armchair, wood moldings, book cases, lamps, chandeliers, and art works. Gregory Gale’s costumes both for Adriana’s gowns and the other everyday clothes are also a genuine eyeful. The wig designs – always important in a Busch play – by Katherine Carr are transformative. The lighting by Kirk Bookman is unobtrusive and subtle. Composer Lewis Flinn has written some lovely piano duets for the scene changes. Andress’ direction is as polished as the setting and brings back the era of sophisticated drawing room comedy. However, he has not made the play seem any more convincing than its far-fetched premise.
We have come to expect a certain kind of entertainment from Charles Busch, both as performer and playwright, and as usual he delivers what is expected. It is just that The Tribute Artist is so beautifully crafted that it is a shame that it isn’t better. However, this latest parody-satire is the world premiere that Busch is offering us at this time.
The Tribute Artist (through March 30, 2014)
Primary Stages, 59E59 Theaters, between Madison and Park Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or http://www.primarystages.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission