Review: The Tribute Artist

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Charles Busch is definitely on a roll. While the hilarious Tribute Artist isn’t the non-stop laugh riot that The Divine Sister was, it’s not far behind it in terms of total laughs, and it’s arguably his best drawing-room comedy to date – and, yes, that means I’m saying it’s at least as good as his Broadway hit Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. I really enjoyed it!

Busch himself plays out-of-work female impersonator Jimmy (whom we never see fully out of drag) who takes on his late landlady Adriana’s identity in order to sell her townhouse, beautifully rendered by set designer Anna Louizos. Of course, it couldn’t possibly be that simple, but, this being a Busch comedy, things eventually work themselves to a blissful and very queer ending.

I think my favorite thing about The Tribute Artist is the way it joyfully celebrates queer and working-class folk without making anybody a saint. The person who is closest to pure goodness is transgender FTM teen Oliver (played with aching sweetness by Keira Keeley), and it’s kinda great that she’s the best human being of the lot.

The person that’s closest to pure evil is Adriana’s long-ago boy toy Rodney (Jonathan Walker), who shows up with his own get rich quick angle, but even he has brief moments of human kindness. I think Busch is having a blast using Rodney to poke fun at the gratuitously gritty, macho and damaged heroes of playwrights like Mamet and LaBute, especially in his absurdly fulminating final monologue, and that was definitely fun for me as well.

Busch is terrific as Jimmy, taking full advantage of a role that uses both his love of old Hollywood glamour and his own charmingly self-deprecating personality. Even better is Julie Halston as Jimmy’s New Yawker lesbian real estate broker buddy Rita, a classic wise-cracking broad.

The marvelous Mary Bacon is ideally cast as highly neurotic midwesterner Christina, who against all odds blossoms as the play progresses. We even get a glimpse of the real Adriana in the first scene, and Cynthia Harris is clearly having a ball playing this imperious and intimidating woman

I know there are people out there who prefer their Busch ridiculous and over-the-top, and his Divine Sister totally proved he is beyond brilliant at delivering that. But there’s always been a really warmly humane quality running though his work, and The Tribute Artist displays this side of him better than ever. Highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Charles Busch

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Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. His current cabaret act, titled “Ridin’ High” is the first club act of his I’ve seen, though I’ve seen many of his plays. The act possesses those qualities I mentioned above, as well as a discreetly dishy side.

Busch has a pleasantly throaty, not terribly strong, high tenor singing voice – but you don’t come to one of his acts for musical virtuosity. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song. Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.

He also uses a technique from his playwrighting background, where he puts something familiar in a new context, usually for comic effect. This is most pronounced where he uses the frame of “the most harshly sunlit noir film ever”, 1945’s Detour, for several songs about traveling from the West Coast to the Midwest.

He breaks midway into a monologue (presumably, but not necessarily, from the film) about taking a lift from a suspiciously familiar car. This character is right in Busch’s main line – comically complex hard-boiled dames – and his delivery is deliciously hilarious.

Sometimes this technique means something as simple as putting on display a thing that used to be self-evidently one way, and is now perceived completely differently. This happens when Busch reads from Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. The title alone suggests where this is going, but the fun piles on as Dahl lists hints from the biggest men’s men of the time – all of whom are now universally acknowledged to have been gay as can be. There’s something in Busch’s delivery that suggests Dahl may have been in on the joke.

In amongst all the fun, Busch delivers a handful of sentimental ballads with heartfelt sincerity, which makes for a good change of pace. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

For tickets, click here.