The Lady in Question
THE VILLAGE VOICE
By MICHAEL FEINGOLD
THE LADY IN QUESTION. A play by Charles Busch, directed by Kenneth Elliott, presented by Kyle Renick and Elliott at the Orpheum Theatre, 126 Second Avenue, 477-2477.
“The djuh-man compoh-sahs,” Charles Busch drawls musingly, fluttering the air before him to display his slender digits, “so good faw the finn-gahs,: Busch’s ornate stage behavior in drag gives me as much aesthetic fascination as it gives delight to his hooting, shrieking, joyously loyal audience. The simulacrum of femaleness he presents has a core of reality, but it’s not the physical reality of a woman, it’s the conceptual reality of female stage behavior as viewed on Broadway in the era between Mrs. Fiske and the advent of the sound film. Busch isn’t imitating women, he’s being actressy, and the images he summons up are of performers most living Americans have never heard of, let alone seen: As Gertrude Garnet (pronounced gar-nay), the concert-pianist heroine of his new piece, The Lady in Question, Busch twists his hands in anguish like Ruth Chatterton, shows off his arms in long swanlike gestures à la Ina Claire, sinks his chin into his chest, and husks his lines like Pauline Lord. His drawl and some of his lewder line readings derive from Tallulah, whose career and persona have lingered longer in the public mind than most of her contemporaries’, and for quick one-liners he’s able to summon up a fearsome range of old movie presences, from Glenda Farrell to Blanche Yurka, but the net effect of a Busch performance, here as in all his genre-parody outings since Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, is of going to see one’s favorite female stage star, circa 1928, in a particularly silly and exaggerated vehicle.
Of course, like most of the genres Busch parodies, the one spoofed by Lady in Question – anti-Nazi melodrama – comes from film, and from later than 1928, but part of Busch’s wit lies in his revealing the squaresville, well-made-play assumptions, accompanied by retrograde moral notions, that underlie the Hollywood epics of the ‘40s and ‘50s, hence everything that follows in popular culture. Where the late Charles Ludlam conflated the classic with the trashy, using the collision to spark questions about morality, art, and everything else, Busch does a sleek, star-vehicle version of Ludlam’s analytic camp. Like a comedic Schliemann excavating a junk-sculpture Troy, he peels the gloss off today’s kitsch, revealing the rotten remnants of previous eras of kitsch layered underneath. The piquant, bittersweet joke of the event is the notion that trash springs eternal, that what made pit audiences gasp at an 1880s drame du Boulevard and flappers whimper in 1920s Broadway mezzanines can still raise dramatic gooseflesh today, albeit now mixed with knowing laughter.
The scary concomitant of the joke, of course, is that the junky moral assumptions popular trash carries, especially where women are concerned, live on with its effectiveness. The conventionalized females Busch embodies run to a type – dangerous, out-for-themselves bitches who, through a struggle for survival, find love when they learn the value of self-sacrifice; they attain grace through caritas. This MGM-ish version of morality was always a sort of socially coded joke. What audiences really wanted was to see the bad girl be bad, with a last-scene reformation, or death, so they didn’t have to go home sharing the guilt for her badness. Busch uses the paradox of his cross-dressing (the other adult female roles are played by women) to give the joke an extra underscoring. Since we know he’s a man, the more intense his expostulations of reform and true love become, the less believable they are as expressions of female emotion. As a lubricious Nazi officer fixated on Gertrude remarks, “I’ve never met a woman quite like you.”
Busch and his partner, Kenneth Elliott (who coproduces and directs as well as playing the aforesaid Nazi), keep their multilayered joke afloat with extensive good humor, skill, and wicked comic daring. If the acting’s a shade on the tacky side – with the exception of Busch; his leading man, Arnie Kolodner; and Elliott – it’s because they’ve built an ensemble that duplicates, in parody form, the old diva-and-supporting-players system. (A 19th century French theater manager once said his idea of casting was “my wife and a few puppets.”) The tackiest performance of all, Andy Halliday as the heroine’s little-girl Nazi nemesis, is so extreme it’s almost surreal – a nightmare hotchpotch of The Children’s Hour, The Bad Seed, and Tomorrow, the World. Vivien Leone’s lighting and B. T. Whitehill’s sets, in the gray-green Murkicolor of socially meaningful ‘40s films, wear their cheapness as a badge of pride; I wish I knew who to praise for the hilarious attempt to duplicate a crane shot.
Like Busch’s earlier works in the unserious vein, The Lady in Question skates very lightly over any serious matter inherent in it. One can’t complain – this knowing lightness is the essence of good entertainment – but before these good-natured burlesques of his became so profitable, Busch also made solo-performance pieces that, without lacking wit, had the weight of genuine substance as well. I can’t help wishing he’d try to deepen his foolery, expand its horizons, with a little material from that other side of himself. Or is it possible that he, too, believes the old show-biz corn of which he’s created such slyly devastating parodies – believes that, for a drag performer in 1989, the career of a Jane Cowl or Grace George is worth aspiring to? That would put the lady in question indeed.
The Lady in Question, set design by B.T. Whitehill; costume design by Robert Locke and Jennifer Arnold; wig design by Elizabeth Katherine Carr, lighting design by Vivien Leone; production stage manager, Robert Vandergriff.
Mr. Busch (Gertrude Garnet), James Cahill (Voice of the Announcer), Mark Hamilton (Professor Mittelhoffer/Dr. Maximillian), Theresa Marlowe (Heidi Mittelhoffer), Robert Carey (Karel Freiser), Arnie Kolodner (Prof. Erik Maxwell), Andy Halliday (Hugo Hoffmann/Lotte von Elsner), Mr. Elliott (Baron Wilhelm von Elsner), Julie Halston (Kitty, the Countess de Borgia), Meghan Robinson (Augusta von Elsner/Raina Aldric)
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