You Should Be So Lucky


Charles Busch Takes On a Trouser Role


Christopher, the hero of the utterly winning new comedy “You Should Be So Lucky” at the Primary Stages, is a lonely Greenwich Village electrolysist full of sighing references to diva films like “Laura” and “I Want to Live.”  But when he first appears, the cinematic quotation that springs to mind is from a very different sort of movie, “King’s Row,” in which an actor named Ronald Regan said “Where’s the rest of me?”

That’s because Christopher is portrayed by the play’s author, Charles Busch, a fabled drag performer who has hitherto seldom set foot on a New York stage without a glitzy dress and heels high enough to induce vertigo.

Here, wearing pants, a mandarin-collar shirt and no discernible mascara or lipstick, Mr. Busch does indeed seem incomplete.  He walks with a sad-sack slump, and when he talks, in a small, self-conscious voice, he ducks his head.  Christopher is clearly an unfinished soul who hasn’t yet found his part in life, and, as he observes forlornly, “I’m not unique: there are thousands of us living in peculiar circumstances all over the Village.”

“You Should Be So Lucky,” which has been directed with glowing affection by Mr. Busch’s longtime collaborator Kenneth Elliott, is a very funny, exceptionally generous-spirited work that’s all about dotting the “i” in personality.  Though the play is set in the publicity-crazed 1990s, with topical allusions to soul-baring afternoon talk shows and hypocritical charity balls, it’s really a spiritual cousin to the Cinderella theme movies of the 1930’s and 40’s like “The Good Fairy” and “Now Voyager,” in which downtrodden heroines are transformed into glamorous swans.

Though Christopher is gay, the use of the phrase “fairy tale” in connection with this show should not smack of double entrendre.  As a drag performer, Mr. Busch has never had the acerbic or political edge of his theatrical kindred.  He’s a starry-eyed, movie-worshipping enthusiast, and while his humor can be wicked, it’s never meant to wound.  “Lucky,” accordingly, is an outlandish, corny and magical tale of transformation that may not believe in itself, but boy, would it like to.

Like almost everything Mr. Busch has done, it’s a hymn to the sanctuary of escapism.  And Christopher’s metamorphosis from nerdy agoraphobe to a vibrant pop-culture hero is, in a sense, a self-portrait of this particular artist.

The unabashedly silly plot takes off when Christopher brings Mr. Rosenberg (Stephen Pearlman), an elderly business magnate, back to his Chinoiserie-cluttered apartment (A triumph of ragged-edge camp, designed by B.T. Whitehill), after the older man has collapsed on the street.  Mr. Rosenberg takes an unlikely liking (with no sexual overtones) to this 30-something orphan (he lost his parents, a poet and a puppeteer, early on under hilariously tragic circumstances) and becomes Christopher’s client for a series of hair-removal sessions.

What follows is an extended exercise in wish fulfillment, Christopher gets to go to a swanky charity ball in an “enchanted tuxedo” and white Rolls-Royce, where he meets his homey prince, a neurotic publicity agent named Walter (Matthew Arkin); he inherits $10 million when Mr. Rosenberg dies of a heart attack and, guided by Rosenberg’s officious ghost, conquers tongue-tying inhibitions to make a triumphant appearance on a confessional talk show whose host is the Oprah Winfrey-like Wanda Wang (Jennifer Kato, in a funny turn as a killer cutie-pie).

Though eminently likable, the production isn’t perfectly oiled.  Still, whenever the jokes misfire, or the timing sags, it picks itself up in the best manner of a dauntless tap dancer.

Mr. Busch walks a tightrope between his “poise-deficient” character’s innate shyness and florid fantasy life.  There’s a filigree of suppressed flamboyance to his shrinking-violet persona.  (He grows into an increasingly outsize comic presence as the evening progresses.)  But he has gallantly given the flashiest parts, and the best lines, to two women who know exactly what to do with them.

The peerless Julie Halston, a veteran of Busch productions and her own one-woman shows, plays Rosenberg’s greedy daughter Lenore as a kamikaze matron from Scarsdale.  Booming out absurdly verbose, self-pitying statements (“In the department store of his heart, there was no merchandise,” Lenore says of her father) with a wonderful, nerve-shattering twang, she would probably walk away with the show if it weren’t for Nell Campbell, who plays Christopher’s sister and alter-ego, Polly.

Ms. Campbell, the eponymous hostess of the long-running Manhattan nightclub Nell’s, gets the part that, under other circumstances, Mr. Busch would probably play: a self-dramatizing, cheerfully promiscuous actress who can turn a simple domestic exchange into a scene from “Hedda Gabler.”  Ms. Campbell, a poseur par excellence in real life, translates her attention-grabbing style with impeccable timing.  It doesn’t hurt that she has the best legs this side of a Folies Bergère revue.

In less splashy roles, Mr. Pearlman and Mr. Arkin find the telling idiosyncrasies that seamlessly transport their characters beyond the realm of stereotypes.  Indeed, the play’s panoply of vintage movie archetypes and Noël Coward-ish epigrams never conceals the wistful human heart at its center.  Dresses be hanged!  Mr. Busch has proved he doesn’t need one to engage the child-like fantasist in all of us.

By Charles Busch; directed by Kenneth Elliott; sets by B.T. Whitehill; lighting by Michael Lincoln; costumes by Suzy Benzinger; sound by Aural Fixation; title song music and lyrics, Dick Gallagher; production stage manager, John Frederick Sullivan.  Presented by Primary Stages Company, Casey Childs, artistic director, in association with the Herrick Theater Foundation.   At 354 West 45th Street, Manhattan.

WITH: Charles Busch (Christopher), Stephen Pearlman (Mr. Rosenberg), Nell Campbell (Polly), Matthew Arkin (Walter), Julie Halston (Lenore) and Jennifer Kato (Wanda Wang).