Charles Busch is generally considered the most successful camp playwright of the last 30 years, but according to Susan Sontag’s famous definition, the idea of “successful camp” is an oxymoron. For Sontag, the essential element of camp is “a seriousness that fails.” Where does that leave Busch? He writes comedies. The “straight” ones, like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which ran for two years on Broadway and had a healthy national tour, are arguably about campy people, so wrapped up in their own dramas they don’t know how ridiculous they seem. The others, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Divine Sister, are satires of camp: movie pastiches featuring performers (almost always including Busch himself) who wear drag and impersonate beloved old divas. Neither variety is aiming for seriousness, and so can’t fail at it. Better simply to call Busch a comic playwright and let his work succeed or flop on its merits. His latest, The Tribute Artist, which tries to combine both styles in one package, does both.
On the success side, it has a terrific premise. Busch plays Jimmy Nichols, an aging celebrity impersonator recently fired from a Las Vegas “Boys Will Be Girls” revue. (Audiences at the Flamingo are not interested in his Charo anymore.) He returns to New York City, where for years he has rented a room in the grand Greenwich Village townhouse of a reclusive widow named Adriana. When Adriana (Cynthia Harris) dies, of natural causes, Jimmy and his pal Rita (Julie Halston) hatch a plot to have Jimmy impersonate her until Rita, a real-estate agent, can sell the townhouse — leaving the two of them to split the resulting millions. It’s nutty but feasible: After all, they have access to Adriana’s clothing, jewelry, wigs, and bank accounts. And since she died intestate, with no relatives, no one will be any worse off. Or so they believe. But Busch has evidently studied the structure of corpse-based farces like Arsenic and Old Lace and Weekend at Bernie’s, and so complications, in the form of an unsuspected stepniece, a transgender teen, and a louche old lover named Rodney, ensue all over the place.
Busch has noted his play’s kinship to such men-in-drag classics as Some Like It Hot, in which straight guys must play women for some pressing reason; as reasons go, a Manhattan real-estate windfall is certainly as pressing as a Mob wipe-out. What’s new here is that Jimmy is gay and, being a drag queen (or as he prefers, a “tribute artist”), completely comfortable with the impersonation. There’s no shame, no learning curve, no tripping-in-the-high-heels moment. Nor any need for Jimmy to be cowed, as Dustin Hoffman’s character was in Tootsie, by the romantic possibilities that arise from the switch. Rather, he goes after Rodney (Jonathan Walker) with the greater confidence that comes with inhabiting Adriana’s persona and caftans:
JIMMY: Please forgive me for not recognizing you immediately. How could I have forgotten those eyes? And that impossibly sensual mouth.
RODNEY: The mouth has changed. Too many cigarettes.
JIMMY: The mouth is the same. Is the kiss the same?
Busch is always amusing when parroting the style of bigger-than-life stars, who were parroting the words of their (often gay) screenwriters. Indeed, the play’s biggest comic payoff has Jimmy, caught in his own trap, compulsively stealing dialogue from Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Rosalind Russell in Picnic, and Norma Shearer in The Women. (When Rita calls out these references, Jimmy shouts, “Would you please stop annotating me?”) But that’s a difficult plane to stay on — and is not, in any case, the job Busch gave himself in The Tribute Artist. Here, for the first time, he wrote himself a male role, albeit one almost entirely in drag. And though the fleeting moment in which he appears without a wig is a real shocker, it turns out that Busch cannot otherwise, as it were, pull it off. Beneath the drag is another drag, equally unconvincing.
It was never previously necessary that Busch be convincing as a man or a woman. If he is not a practitioner of misogynistic drag (the kind, as Rita stridently brays, that portrays all women “as braying, strident harridans”), neither is he a practitioner of “realistic” drag, the kind that wins prizes in contests of passing. The pleasure in his pastiche pageants always derived from his delight in the act of playing a woman, however unconvincingly. Unreality was his reality. But here, despite the play’s references to Jimmy’s “magnificent bones” and delicacy, his mannishness and expressionism render the plot a nonstarter. With his big hands and Hitler-mustache eyelashes, no one within 100 yards would buy the impersonation for a moment. And it turns out that in farce, which depends on maintaining strict character logic in increasingly unreal situations, camp tropes are fatal. Good to know.
And too bad. Busch has a real gift for comedy that arises from the ironic transparency of his characters’ motives:
RODNEY: I am capable of extreme violence.
JIMMY: I refuse to believe that.
RODNEY: I’ve been arrested on numerous occasions for assault. The last time was when I broke the jaw of a salesman at Pottery Barn.
JIMMY: It’s very irritating when nothing’s in stock.
But comedy at what price? The problem, pace Sontag, isn’t seriousness but indulgence. Like Jimmy, Busch falls back on the old stuff when he’s stuck. (He’ll do anything for a gag: Bette Davis is imagined working at a health-food restaurant just to get to “Pita, Pita, Pita!”) And that sort of machination pales in comparison with the elaborate and bald setup for the plot; the first scene does little but provide a checklist of answers to questions that will arise later. The result is somehow both overstuffed and underfed. And, as indifferently directed by Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress, underfunny. (Only Busch and Halston have the requisite style.) Jimmy does get a big laugh with his amazed realization that “the more honest you are, the more people believe you.” Unfortunately, The Tribute Artist doesn’t really test the premise.
The Tribute Artist is at 59E59 through March 16.