THE NEW YORK TIMES, JANUARY 2003
the Finery, This Babe's a Brute
A lot of gloriously bad dialogue is devoted to defining the charms of Lady Sylvia Allington, the heroine of "Shanghai Moon," Charles Busch's happy, cockeyed new melodrama. Much is made of her beauty, her scandalous past, her opalescent skin, the mystery in her eyes. But what makes Sylvia so immensely appealing can really be summed up quite simply. The lady, you see, is a broad.
Incarnated by the likes of Jean Harlow, Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck, the broad was one of the great contributions of the early Hollywood talkies. She was scrappy, blunt-spoken and unconditionally American — the kind of woman who, even dressed up with a title, a tiara and a slipping debutante's accent, revealed the guts, pluck and craft of a seasoned street fighter.
Mr. Busch, who apparently consumes old Hollywood arcana the way other people wolf down popcorn, has managed to distill the essence of every bona fide broad who roamed the silver screen in "Shanghai Moon," a highly perfumed tale of fatal passion that opened last night at the Greenwich House Theater with the playwright as Lady Sylvia. And the fact that the broad is, in this case, embodied by a man is almost beside the point.
Long before he achieved mainstream fame as the author of the Broadway hit "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," Mr. Busch had created his own welcoming garden in the large, flowery field of female impersonation with lampoons like "The Lady in Question," "Psycho Beach Party" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom." He was never an uncanny mimic, turning himself into an exact replica of Bette Davis at the drop of an eyelash, as Charles Pierce did.
Nor does he have the cool physical precision of the cabaret diva Lypsinka, who anatomizes tacky feminine flourishes like a surgeon. And he's certainly no camp deconstructionist, the kind of artist who takes a movie apart frame by frame, as the Theater-A-Go-Go! did so memorably with "Valley of the Dolls."
No, Mr. Busch's work is more like a smart but affectionate fan's notes, written in bright crayon with lots of exclamation points. He spoofs his subjects to get closer to them. And at his best, he illuminates why we still respond so warmly to certain stars and films that would seem to have long ago passed their sell-by dates.
With "Shanghai Moon," a Drama Dept. production directed by Carl Andress, Mr. Busch evokes the racy, gritty sensibility of Hollywood movies in the precode days of the Depression, before censorship clamped down on the studios. The story of a Western woman who falls disastrously for the charms of the East (i.e., opium, temple dancing and a handsome Chinese man), "Shanghai Moon" is most directly inspired by "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933), which starred Stanwyck in what is perhaps the strangest and least sentimental film that Frank Capra ever made.
Hardcore Hollywood scholars will find plenty of references to other movies, including "The Cheat," a 1915 film by Cecil B. DeMille that provides "Shanghai Moon" with its flesh-searing climax, and "The Letter" (1940), the Bette Davis vehicle from which Mr. Busch borrows a famous declaration of guilt.
But you don't need to pick up on every allusion to appreciate the general tone of "Shanghai Moon," which summons an era in which wide American eyes looked to what was then referred to as the Orient as a place of exotic adventure and decadence. The plot, as it tends to be in such dramas, is hopelessly convoluted, packing in more twists in 90 minutes than a year's worth of "All My Children."
Mr. Busch is Lady Sylvia, who arrives with her English husband, the diplomat Lord Allington (Daniel Gerroll), in Shanghai as a guest of the suave General Gong Fei (B. D. Wong). What happens thereafter can be traced through Mr. Busch's changes of costumes (designed with gusto by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case): from a white traveling ensemble with pearls to the skimpy outfit that suggests Hollywood's idea of a Chinese temple dancer to disheveled undergarments to tasteful, veiled black for that big teary trial scene at the end In between, many sordid secrets are revealed by a cast of characters that includes the General's scheming concubine, Mah Li (Sekiya Billman), and his ancient adviser, Dr. Wu (Marcy McGuigan), plus an opium-smuggling sailor (the invaluable Mr. Gerroll again), who holds the key to Lady Sylvia's past. There is also Mrs. Carroll (played with winningly shrill gentility by Becky Ann Baker), an ambitious brothel owner, of whom Gong Fei says, "If you weren't a figure of malevolent evil, you would be the stuff of tragedy."
In truth "Shanghai Moon" begins a bit shakily, with an easy if jovial vulgarity that brings to mind basement drag shows of an earlier era, when just to say the word pansy was to elicit knowing giggles. And while B. T. Whitehill's exuberantly gaudy set accurately nails the clichés of period Orientalia, Mr. Andress doesn't appear to have much instinctive feeling for the staccato rhythms of the vintage talkie style.
Even Mr. Busch, in his first major cross-dressed performance in several years, seems a bit tentative in his opening scene. But once Gong Fei makes his first pass at Sylvia, forcing her to reveal her inner bruiser, the production finds its tempo and it rarely slackens again. The dialogue at this pivotal moment is worth noting: "Ah, the beautiful flower has thorns," says Gong Fei. "And a good right hook," answers Lady Sylvia.
That exchange sums up exactly what made audiences root for Harlow and Stanwyck: no matter how soignée they looked, they were always ready for a good brawl. And Mr. Busch's dialogue gleefully matches this muscular attitude.
Listen to Sylvia as she dresses down Dr. Wu and Mah Li: "Listen, you two fortune cookies, I know you can't stand the sight of me. Well, I've got news for you, that goes double." Or when she speaks of her childhood on Chicago's South Side, raised on "a steady diet of kielbasa and bitterness."
Mr. Wong, best known as the ambiguous love interest in "M. Butterfly," plays yang to Mr. Busch's yin (or is it the opposite?) with silken style, even when he's cracking a bullwhip. And the ominous aspiration with which he pronounces Dr. Wu's name summons in itself an entire genre of East-meets-West films.
But it's Mr. Busch's palpably sincere love for the Hollywood dames who stood up for themselves that gives "Shanghai Moon" a fizzy sweetness seldom associated with campiness. When Lady Sylvia dons that over-the-top temple dancer outfit and tries her own interpretation of the Chinese terpsichorean art, the result is clunky and endearingly game, an exercise in American hootchy-kootchy without smut or smirkiness.
No Hollywood heroine ever danced in quite this manner. Yet the moment magically captures a whole breed of spunky, forthright movie women who were innocent without being naïve and were always up for something new. Even in the depths of martyred suffering, they had an irresistible zest. Mr. Busch makes a tasty and persuasive case for the theory that broads do indeed have more fun.
WITH: Charles Busch (Lady Sylvia Allington), Becky Ann Baker (Mrs. Carroll/Sir Geoffrey), Sekiya Billman (Mah Li), Daniel Gerroll (Lord Allington/Pug Talbot), Marcy McGuigan (Dr. Wu/Sir Lionel) and B. D. Wong (General Gong Fei).