Theater review by Adam Feldman
The kind of camp that Charles Busch has practiced for more than 35 years, with great affection and without modern peer, is rooted in nostalgia for the black-and-white magic of the silver screen of yore. He cut his teeth on tough cookies like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, and he has their style in his bones. When he takes the stage as the leading ladies in his own plays—arms akimbo, lips aquiver, accent confidently straddling the Atlantic—he performs an act of cultural resuscitation, breathing new life into an iconography of female power (tinged with vulnerability) to which generations of gay men, among others, once clung as though for sheer life.
For audiences today, increasingly removed from the cinematic source, Busch’s sensibility is now itself an object of nostalgia, and it is showcased to humbly glorious effect in his latest scrappy melocomedy, The Confession of Lily Dare. The narrative begins in the cemetery where our heroine is buried. “How do you figure our girl nabbed herself such a fancy plot?“ wonders a friend at her grave. The next two hours answer that question. It’s a fancy plot indeed, full of hairpin reversals of fortune. We meet Lily as an orphaned 16-year-old convent girl whose fresh face is soon smudged by life with a bordello-keeping aunt in earthquake-era San Francisco. In later decades, she becomes a cabaret chanteuse, a convicted criminal and then a cathouse madam herself—watching from afar as the daughter she never knew rises in the world, and driven to extremes to protect her from disgrace. (Between Stella Dallas and I Want to Live!, Busch is burning the Stanwyck at both ends here.)
A brightly fruity cocktail of wisecracks, hard knocks and cheap sentiment, The Confession of Lily Dare offers (as someone says of Lily’s nightclub act) “entertainment that ranges from the ribald to the exquisite.” Directed with aplomb by longtime Bush leaguer Carl Andress—with distinguished assistance from costumers Rachel Townsend and Jessica Jahn—this Primary Stages production features an excellent supporting cast: Jennifer Van Dyck and Christopher Borg, perfectly ripe in a variety of key roles, are buttressed by Howard McGillin as a louche swindler, Nancy Anderson as a loyal tart and Kendal Sparks as a light-loafered saloon pianist. But Busch, as he should be, remains the main attraction. See him if you can. They don’t make them like this anymore, fellas, and maybe they never will.
Cherry Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Charles Busch. Directed by Carl Andress. With Busch, Jennifer Van Dyke, Howard McGillin. Running time: 1hr 55mins. One intermission.