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by Michael Portantiere

The Lady is a Champ

  • Charles Busch is THE LADY IN QUESTION, photo by David Rodgers


    For the better part of two decades, Charles Busch was one of the leading lights of Off-Broadway as the author and drag star of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, and a clutch of other fabulous entertainments. More recently, he conquered Broadway as the author of the comedy hit The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and he wrote the book for the underrated musical Taboo. His latest stage work, Our Leading Lady, had a run at Manhattan Theatre Club last season. Two of his plays, Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die, were made into films that have become minor cult classics.

    Just last week, it was announced that the stage version of Die Mommie Die will have a limited run at New World Stages this fall, with Busch starring. And, as we speak, the indefatigable artiste is headlining a revival of The Lady in Question at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, directed by Christopher Ashley. Bush is once again cavorting with Julie Halston, his longtime partner in comic mayhem; the cast also includes the mega-talented Candy Buckley, Barrett Foa, Larry Keith, Richard Kind, Matt McGrath, Perry Ojeda, and Ana Reeder.

    Described as a free-wheeling satire of 1940s espionage flicks, The Lady in Question tells the tale of Gertrude Garnet, a glamorous, egotistical, self-centered concert pianist who becomes a true heroine when a handsome American professor enlists her help in rescuing his mother from a Nazi prison. Busch, Halston, and company spoke about the show, which runs August 14-September 2 at Bay Street, during the final stages of rehearsal.


    Charles Busch: I've always wanted to work with everyone in this cast. I'm a little obsessed with Matt McGrath. I remember seeing him in 1989 in Amulets of the Dragon Forces, this incredible Paul Zindel play, when he was just a kid. He gave one of the great performances; it was like Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding. Richard Kind, of course, took over in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and breathed new life into that play, so I thought it would be fun to act with him. I think we make a very good team.

    Richard Kind: I'd never seen any of Charles' shows Off-Broadway, but I had friends in the company, and I would always hear them talk about The Lady in Question in particular. A lot of people think it's his best work. Charles recently directed me in the radio version of Allergist's Wife. The thought that I might be playing opposite him romantically in this play just killed me -- not to mention the fact that I'd be playing a Nazi. I was very nervous about taking the part. I still think Charles has made a huge mistake.

    Julie Halston: It's not a mistake at all!

    Busch: I love it when people play against type. Richard is one of those actors with a very strong comic persona, but he can't rely on that in this role. He's doing a whole different kind of characterization, and I think that's really cool. [To Kind:] The only thing I'm concerned about is that you keep cracking up every time you look at Matt. What's gonna happen when you see him with blonde braids and a dirndl?

    Matt McGrath: I've seen Charles perform in benefits, and I was in a reading of Red Scare on Sunset. That didn't go forward to a production for one reason or another, but it was an honor to work with Charles and the rest of the cast. I think his whole canon should be revisited.

    Halston: That would be fine with me! I already know all my lines from all the plays. They're so well written. When we went back to look at our parts [in The Lady in Question], it came back so easily.

    Barrett Foa: The documentary about Charles and his company [Charles Busch is The Lady in Question] is so useful for those of us who didn't know the history.

    Halston: You can read about our company in the Yale Drama Review and a lot of other theater quarterlies and journals. They all mention Charles' work as seminal. It was crazy, nutty, and so much fun doing those shows at the Limbo Lounge. We'll never see that kind of theater again. When I've done shows like Hairspray and Gypsy on Broadway, I've found that all the young gay boys are very worshipful of Charles. My door was always open, and they would come in and say, "Tell me about the '80s!"

    Foa: I went to see the movie Die Mommie Die the day it came out, and I immediately became a huge fan of Charles.

    Busch: It's interesting when people get to know your work at different stages in your career. There are a lot of young people who know me only from the two cult movies, and that's great. Allergist's Wife is done pretty often by stock and amateur groups. Vampire Lesbians and Psycho Beach Party are also done a lot, but The Lady in Question not so much. I think it's daunting because it can be an expensive show to produce; it needs a lot of costumes, a double-decker set with a staircase. It used to bug me that some critics described the show as a hilarious spoof of B movies. That's not true at all! This would have been a deluxe star vehicle, something that Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer would have starred in at MGM.

    Kind [to Busch]: Do you mind it when people use the words "parody" or "spoof" to describe your plays?

    Busch: I think of them more as hommages. We do send up the conventions of 1940s films, but I like to think that this play works on several levels; it makes you laugh, but you can also get into the suspense and root for the heroine to escape. That's my metier as a performer, to play a female character with as much psychological insight as I can but also to comment on the star acting conventions of the past. It's a tightrope I'm walking, and everybody has to walk it with me.

    Halston: Some very skilled, very talented actors just cannot do that. When you find people who can, like this cast, you realize it's a special talent.

    Busch: I'd love to do The Lady in Question as a movie, to open it up and film it in black and white.

    Halston: There was a TV commercial for the show when we did it the first time, and it was fantastic.

    Busch: Yes. It was directed by Paris Barclay, who went on to become a famous TV director. It was in black and white, and we had all these set-ups. I think we had to close the show because we spent so much money on the commercial, but it was very stylish.

    Halston: The commercial is in the documentary. I can't tell you how emotional it was to see that movie. I've been stopped on the street and I've gotten emails from people all over the country, telling me how moved they were by what I said about the '80s and the AIDS crisis. Charles and I went to promote the documentary in San Francisco; we went to every screening at the Castro Theater. The audiences were terrific. Now, we're excited because it looks like The Lady in Question is going to be the best-selling play of the Bay Street season. It's an amazing experience for us to be doing it again.

    Published on Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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