The Lady in Question
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, THURSDAY, AUGUST 3, 1989
Norma Shearer Meets Parodist
By LAURIE WINER
Charles Busch has a new play, “The Lady in Question.” It’s at the Orpheum, where, whatever else you may say about the proceedings, there’s at least no wait for the ladies’ room during intermission. The only line is outside the men’s – Mr. Busch’s tried and true fans, who’ve been supporting this master of camp farce since the beginning. They’re out in force, showing the flag as it were, even now that Mr. Busch’s work has begun attracting straight as well as gay audiences.
At a press preview, this Busch claque was vociferously on hand to applaud the playwright/actor’s signature grand entrance as a strong-faced man dressed as a strong-willed woman in a glorious, too-too-perfect outfit. It was a typical scene out of his oeuvre, where beloved Hollywood clinches are rewritten and re-created with a distinctively homosexual flair. Men play women, women play women; sometimes you forget who is playing whom and it really doesn’t matter anyway.
With his “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” still packing them in after five years at the Provincetown Playhouse, Mr. Busch’s abundant charms have long since broken the sexuality barrier. These days the seats for “Vampire Lesbians” are filled mainly with stray New Yorkers who haven’t yet caught the show and heterosexual couples who drive in from New Jersey or the Island for a taste of something that sounds like wicked fun (and is, although perhaps not as much as it promises to be). Word is out that Mr. Busch is telling the truth when he reveals to interviewers that “I’m about as avant-garde as Henny Youngman.”
“The Lady in Question,” a sparkling spoof of several 1940s Nazi suspense films, chiefly Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” may seem a little lengthy for all but Mr. Busch’s most impassioned fans. Still, it offers enough slap-happy fun to satisfy any crossover audience looking for a goofy rendezvous with destiny Normal Shearer meets parodist drag queen.
Mr. Busch himself stars as Gertrude Garnet (like the gem), a classy, Shearer-like world famous concert pianist, risen from the lowbrow ranks of vaudeville where she was formerly known as Barrelhouse Gertie, the Kissing Kitten on the Keys. When Miss Garnet (now pronounced Gar-nay, thank you) saunters into Nazi Germany, 1940, the most pressing question in her life is, “Where is my maid?”
Grandly outfitted in a blue mink-trimmed suit (with matching stole slung stylishly over her padded shoulders), Gertrude reeks of the worldliness of movie stars like Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. But Gertrude has a real aversion to the kind of heroism Ingrid Bergman practiced in “Casablanca” and “Notorious.” When a American professor named Erik Maxwell (Arnie Kolodner) tries to interest her in helping victims of the Nazis, she applies the helpfully self-serving philosophy of her personal swami. “Perhaps all of these people who are being persecuted have chose it,” she mulls, thoughtfully stroking her mink.
But Gertrude soon finds out that carefree Bavaria is crawling with bad Germans who kill people whether they want to die or not. A lovesick Nazi baron (Kenneth Elliott, the director and a long-time Busch collaborator) offers the dazzling Gertrude the use of his castle, even though his mother (Meghan Robinson) and sinister niece despise anyone who isn’t of the master race, particularly red-haired statuesque international concert artists with loose morals. Gertrude also meets some good Germans, like the brave and braided lass Heidi Mittelhoffer (Theresa Marlowe), who responds to a request that she join the female division of the Hitler Youth with: “I wouldn’t play canasta with those goose-stepping lezzies!”
Heidi might have been referring to the baron’s evil little niece, Lotte von Elsner, ferociously embodied by a pinafore-wearing Andy Halliday, who seems to have cross pollinated the little girl in “The Bad Seed” with Leopoldine Konstantin, Claude Rains’s steel-faced Nazi sympathizing mother in “Notorious.” While Gertrude zaps Lotte with some sterling zingers (“I do hope one day you’ll realize, dear, that you have a special kind of beauty – the kind that comes from within”), Lotte has the last word. She kills Gertrude’s best friend, Kitty (Julie Halston), and hangs her body conspicuously in the baron’s front closet, where Gertrude dramatically uncovers it.
That’s the last straw for Gertrude. “It’s as if the ribbon that held my world together untied,” she says with a delicate quiver, checking out its dramatic effect on Prof. Maxwell. She joins him in the fight for right and risks her neck to rescue his wheelchair-bound ham-actress mother (Meghan Robinson again, looking and gloriously over emoting like Bette Davis in “What Happened to Baby Jane?”) from Nazi clutches.
Though the pace may at times lag, in the end “The Lady in Question” explodes hilariously with Mr. Busch’s particular love/hate relationship to movie clichés. In the giddy 10 minutes of the finale the playwright drags on to the stage just about every 1940s-style Hollywood myth about good and evil and male and female behavior, and the company responds with impeccable comic precision.
Mr. Busch shows a remarkable comic range within the enclosed world of Hollywood movie star homage. He’s a devastating parodist – whether exuding a Ginger Rogers self-made American toughness or a Katharine Hepburn aloof elegance. His transformations are invaluably aided by the costume designers, Robert Locke and Jennifer Arnold, who concoct everything from smart and sporty jodhpurs to a concert artist’s white-and-gold lame gown with the right light satiric touch. They leave it to Mr. Busch to make the joke soar, and he does.
And so a heroine is born, and, thanks to Mr. Busch and company, another step is taken in dismantling the clichés of nobility and sexuality long propagated by popular culture. It is Mr. Busch’s particular talent to dismantle clichés in so good natured and endearingly theatrical a fashion.
The Lady in Question, written by Charles Busch; directed by Kenneth Elliott; 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. Presented by Kyle Renick and Mr. Elliott. At the Orpheum Theater, 126 Second Avenue, at Eighth Street.
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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