One of our leading gay playwrights is stretching a bit, with mixed results. In “Our Leading Lady,” Charles Busch tells the story of Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew) as she prepares to perform her greatest hit “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night when Abraham Lincoln is in the audience (assassin John Wilkes Booth was not in the show, as has often been misrepresented—he just got his mail at the theater).
Busch has created a backstage drama that will thoroughly entertain a backstage audience. While there is much to entertain your average theatergoer, the deeper you are into theater the more you’ll laugh.
Mulgrew is every bit the stage diva as Keene, raising the roof where the scene calls for elevation, but not afraid to head for the gutter when that’s where she’ll find the payoff. As you might expect in a Busch play, there’s a solid gay subplot, where an older, married homosexual actor initiates his understudy into his secret world.
Busch falters, but doesn’t totally stumble, when faced with the subject of assassination. The scenes that follow Lincoln’s death are, by today’s standards, slow and overlong; post-9/11, Americans will get the gist of a national trauma in the space of two lines of dialogue. Scenes that would have been shattering in 1999 feel overextended here.
Bless Charles, though, for daring to get so serious — he does it better than most.