The Off-Broadway Theater Magazine
Reaching for the Moon
When Charles Busch take the stage of Theater for the New City this month in his new comedy, Shanghai Moon, the actor/writer/drag artist extraordinaire will be returning to his first – and true – love, spoofs of Hollywood movies. But although Busch will be in familiar territory as Lady Sylvia Allington, the glamorous (and somewhat depraved) wife of a British diplomat who becomes the sex slave of a Chinese war load, Shanghai Moon is still a departure from such previous, cinema-inspired romps as Red Scare on Sunset and Psycho Beach Party. “It’s a very passionate, very lurid story,” he says. “And I have my first murder trial, with a big dramatic scene on the witness stand!”
This time around, Busch drew on such pre-Hays Code melodramas as The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Shanghai Express for inspiration. “I’ve never done the entire 20th century,” he quips. “Sylvia is sort of a Kay Francis/Constance Bennett type. And the costumes are divine, very-Adrian inspired. The only stretching going on will be my foundation garments.”
Another first comes in the gender-bending department, since most of the men will be played by women. But no fool, Busch’s love interest will be played by the definitely male James Saito.
For Busch, constant experimenting is all part of the playwriting game. But, after seven years of “stretching” – from musicals (The Green Heart), to serious drama (Queen Amarantha) to playing a man (You Should Be So Lucky) – it was heaven to fall back on the tried and true. “I was tired of hurting and aching, I just wanted to have fun,” says Busch, who wrote the play in two weeks. “And I’m sympathetic to those people who wanted to see me again in a great lady part. I miss the lady when she’s not around. She’s so smug in her own wonderfulness.”
Another reason Busch was so eager to get onstage is that he won’t be there for quite a while! In March, he leaves for California to work on the film version of Psycho Beach Party. No, he isn’t playing the 16-year-old heroine, like he did well over a decade ago. “But, of course, I wrote myself a great new part, Monica Sharp, the beautiful and glamorous chief of police,” he laughs.
He’s also working hard on his next play, The Allergist’s Wife, which will be presented in the fall by Manhattan Theatre Club. But Busch won’t be in front of the footlights, this time, it’s real women playing women! “It’s rather autobiographical. I come from a matriarchy, and my mother and sisters are so articulate and witty that all I have to do is memorize their dialogue,” he says. “Of course, I may have to leave town once it opens.”
Onstage, Busch makes his Broadway debut as the author of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, a play about the meltdown of a middle-aged Upper West Side couple that in an earlier incarnation last February won the Outer Critics Circle Award, and reopens next month in a deluxe production starring Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts. And on the television, for the new season of the HBO prison drama OZ, Busch’s character claims center stage as a death-row inmate dying of AIDS.
Busch readily acknowledges that his career has come to a major turning point. In fact, the response to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife has outstripped even his wildest expectations. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the play a “window-rattling comedy of mid-life malaise,” and Stephen Sondheim let it drop that “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife may be the funniest evening I’ve ever had in the theater.”
On the other hand, to be invited to the party after all these years leave as Busch feeling slightly at a loss. “It’s odd,” he observes, “For so long, I’ve worked outside the mainstream. Now to be seen as an insider is a little disorienting.” Still, no matter how much success he has as a playwright, Busch says that he will never give up performing – and that includes performing in drag. “Drag liberated me. I was a much better actor playing a woman than I had ever been playing a man. Plus, it give me a lot of pleasure and seems to give other people a lot of pleasure, too. So why deny myself and deny my fans, all out of some misbegotten notion of legitimacy!”
Interviews and Articles
New York Times
Enid Nemy, NY Times
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