Interview with Charles Busch


A Droll Dramatist Who's Also a Diva Moves Up a Notch


For Charles Busch, it was the shock of a lifetime.  In 1984, he and some friends put on a campy show to entertain themselves for a weekend at a nightclub on Avenue C in the East Village.  With Mr. Busch doing a star turn in drag, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” won a cult following, moved to the Provincetown Playhouse and ran for five years.

Now this 44-year-old playwright and performer has attained an even higher level of visibility in the theater.  When a six-minute sketch he wrote and performed about a disaffected housewife blossomed into a full-length play, Mr. Busch handed over the diva role to the award-winning Broadway veteran Linda Lavin.  Result?  “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” was a hit last season in its limited run at the Manhattan Theater Club.  Staged by Lynne Meadow, the club’s artistic director, the play has now moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, where it opens on Thursday.

Ms. Lavin plays Marjorie Taub, a cultured Upper West Sider having a midlife meltdown.  Bereft after the death of her psychiatrist, she seeks a consolation she can’t find from her husband, the well-meaning but never-quite-present Ira (Tony Roberts), or her aged mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), who is alarmingly eloquent on the subject of her bowels.  Into this troubled nest, salvation arrives in the form of Lee (Michele Lee), a vivacious enigma.

The comedy that ensues did not earn universal rave reviews when it first opened last February.  John Lahr, in The New Yorker, called it “conservative folderol,” and a number of reviews mentioned the  unsatisfactory ending (which has been somewhat reworked for Broadway).  Still, largely thanks to 

click image to enlarge

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Charles Busch, whose play "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" opens this week on Broadway, in his Manhattan Apartment.

Ms. Lavin’s bravura performance, most reviewers shared the opinion of Ben Brantley, who wrote in The New York Times that though “Charles Busch’s window-rattling  comedy” has moments “cut from the synthetic cloth of television comedy,” it “earns its wall-to-wall laughs.”  No less a Broadway authority than Stephen Sondheim said in print that “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” “may be the funniest evening I’ve ever had in the theater.”

It might be hard for some people to believe that “The Allergist’s Wife” comes from the same planet, let alone the same pen, as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.”  On the other hand, those who have followed Mr. Busch’s work have a different perspective.  Kyle Renick, who produced four of Mr. Busch’s plays at the WPA Theater over the last decade, describes the new play as “both a new direction for him and a summation of the work he has been doing for years.”

The question is: How did he get here from there?

Mr. Busch, who lives in a West Village studio stuffed with Orientalia and painted “Gigi red,” cheerfully admits, “I didn’t set out to be a writer at all.”  Tall and lithe, Mr. Busch has a highly mobile face and expressive eyes that have served him well as a comically androgynous performer.  It’s a little surprising to encounter him offstage and discover that he saves his head.  He usually wears wigs, as he did for his stint as a double-crossing cross-dresser in the HBO series “OZ.”

“Ever since I was in the womb,” he said, “I wanted to be on the stage.  Growing up in New York City and going to Broadway theater since I was a kid, I had a rather pragmatic view of show biz.  In college I realized I was an offbeat type, and the only way I was going to have a career was to create roles for myself.”

He started writing material to perform solo, learned the rudiments of style and exposition, and booked himself into gay bars and small theaters around the country.  “It was kind of like being in vaudeville for six years,” he said.

In the early 1980’s, he and the director Kenneth Elliott assembled an informal company of performers who put on shows at an East Village nightclub called the Limbo Lounge.  “I wrote according to what would be acceptable in that space,” Mr. Busch recalled. “We performed on an empty stage because we had no place to store furniture.  And half the audience was standing up drinking beer, so you couldn’t do an elaborate two-act piece.

“When we first did ‘Vampire Lesbians,’ Ken and I thought, ‘What would we like to see at midnight in the East Village?’  Of course, you‘d want something campy and sexy, cute people with not too much on, and a flamboyant drag role for myself.  I never thought I was intentionally writing a play.  I was just making up lines for us to say, like a vaudeville sketch.”

“Vampire Lesbians” wasn’t the only sketch Mr. Busch created that had a shelf life beyond one weekend. The film version of “Psycho Beach Party,” a spoof of surf movies, which Mr. Busch performed at the Limbo Lounge in 1986, was well received when it came out last summer.  Unlike, say, the late great Charles Ludlum, whose erudition informed the literate transvestites of classic dramas he performed (sometimes in drag) with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Mr. Busch said he never sat down to write a play because he had an idea.  Rather: “It was to create a marvelous role for myself.  Wouldn’t it be fun to be Stanwyck in a Capra comedy, or a Mary Quant-type fashion designer in London, or have a Sarah Bernhardt-type role in a 19th century spectacle?  Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with theater history, and Bernhardt was a favorite figure for me.  In a certain crazy sense, I modeled myself on her as actress-manager.”

Invited by Mr. Renick to do a play at the WPA Theater, Mr. Busch found that he was no longer content simply spoofing movie genres.  He wrote “The Lady in Question” (1989), ostensibly a takeoff on World War II movies, as a critique of the New Age philosophy of enlightened selfishness.  Another play, “Red Scare on Sunset” (1991), was a comic melodrama set during the McCarthy era with a heroine who spouted a politically incorrect ideology.  “As I began creating these vehicles for myself, I gradually, without intending to, became a writer,” Mr. Busch said.

He spent the 1990’s experimenting with a variety of forms.  “There was a war going on between my three roles as playwright, actor and faux diva,” he said.  “I finally felt that for the writer to grow, I’d have to keep the diva unemployed for the time being.”

He wrote a novel (“Whores of Lost Atlantis”), a nightclub act, a musical revue, a play in which he took a male role (“I didn’t enjoy that too much,” he says now about the 1995 “You Should Be So Lucky”), and the book for the 1997 Rusty Magee musical “The Green Heart,” produced by the Manhattan Theater Club.

“Minutes after the disappointing reviews came out,” he remembered, “Lynne Meadow said she would commit to doing my next play, whatever it was, which was a lovely gesture of faith in me.”

Around the same time, Mr. Busch had written a one-man show in which he played several female characters, one of whom was Miriam Passman, a raging Upper West Side housewife desperately in search of self-expression.  “This was one of the few times I’d looked at my own suburban Jewish background and the people I grew up with in Hartsdale and Westchester.” He said.  “When Lynne invited me to write a play for her, I hoped to develop that character further.  But it was hard to come up with a plot that would let Miriam breathe.  The various story lines I came up with sounded very sit-commy.”

Having seen the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s play “A Delicate Balance,” Mr. Busch started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny to take these Jewish characters and put them in a rather cryptic Albee or Pinter play?”  Specifically, the murky relationship between two women and a man in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” provided a blueprint for “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” “I didn’t intend it to be a genre parody,” Mr. Busch said, “just a mysterious story linen with very un-mysterious characters.”

One thing that was clear from the beginning was the Mr. Busch was not going to play any of the female roles in the new play.  “I identify with the character of Marjorie Taub, whose dilemma is that she wants to be an intellectual,” Mr. Busch said, “I have the same frustrations.  But I never thought for a second of playing that role.  I’m at my best playing a woman and simultaneously commenting on the history of star acting, and that dual consciousness is not what this play is about.”

While the play was gestating in his mind, he happened to see “Death Defying Acts” Off Broadway, which featured Linda Lavin in one-acts by Woody Allen and Elaine May.  He ended up writing his play for Ms. Lavin after watching her perform.  “Linda is very rare because she’s a brilliant comedienne and knows every possibility of getting laughs, physically or through verbal humor,” Mr. Busch said. “But she also has enormous emotional resources.  She’s like a Jewish Anna Magnani.  The very moment you’re horrified for her, you’re also laughing.”

For Ms. Meadow, directing the play meant grounding the comedy in emotional reality.  “Charles is terribly witty and deeply funny,” she said.  “But his characters are also very human.  This is a play about getting lost in the middle of life and finding one’s way.  Linda knew she had to go to the  high wire for this one, and we agreed we would approach the material as if it were ‘Hedda Gabler,’ without worrying about being funny.   But I have to tell you, it was hard sometimes in the rehearsal room stifling my laugher.”

Far from monopolizing the laughs in “The Allergist’s Wife, Ms. Lavin’s character has a hardy foil in her mother, Frieda.  This character, Mr. Busch said, is a composite of his Aunt Belle, who is 88, and his Aunt Lillian, who died a year ago.  “It’s wild to hear the audience roaring with laughter at things Aunt Belle said that left us shocked and appalled,” he said.  “When my sister told her she was planning to take a boat trip down the Rhine, Aunt Belle said, ‘I hope you can sleep on pillows filled with Jewish hair.’  When she came to see the play at the Manhattan Theater Club, my sisters and I worried that she’d be upset and tried to pretend that it was a portrait of Aunt Lillian.  But she recognized everything that came out of her own mouth.  And she loved it.  She kept saying to the audience members around her, ‘That’s me!’”

One bittersweet aspect of the play’s success is that Aunt Lillian, who brought up Mr. Busch after his mother died when he was 7, didn’t live to see it.  Talking about her was the only time when Mr. Busch’s steady stream of breezy conversation faltered, and tears surged to the surface.  “She was a cross between Auntie Mame and the Miracle Worker, he said.  “I was a completely frightened child, and she insisted that nothing should get in the way of me pursuing my creative interests.  I had 10 years of very difficult struggle before I could make a living in the theater, and she was always there for me.”

“It’s ironic that the career I had all these years was based on my sexuality and performing in drag, which was a little too weird for a woman of her generation to embrace.  And yet it was only because she made me so confident about myself that I was able to have this very odd career.”

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