One Night Only

What could be more fun than watching a couple of divas have at each other? Perhaps when those divas are drag legends Lypsinka and Charles Busch — aided and abetted in their revelry by Whoopi Goldberg and Bryan Batt — in a one-night-only performance of the infamous James Kirkwood play, “Legends!”

The play, in which a pair of aging archenemies are forced to work together to salvage their flagging careers, has never been done in New York.

Oh, they’ve tried. The production starring Mary Martin and Carol Channing toured for a while, but was noted for its backstage battling. Later, Linda Evans and Joan Collins tried to capitalize on their “Dynasty” battles, but that production also famously fell apart.

Can’t-miss “Legends!” stars Lypskinka, Charles Busch, Whoopi.

And so, on March 23 at Town Hall, New Yorkers will finally get a chance to see this play in a full staged reading. John Epperson, aka Lypskinka, has completely rewritten the play. The evening has the same dramatic arc and number of scenes, he said, before adding, “I don’t want people who have seen or know the original play to say, ‘I don’t want to see that.’ It’s not what they’re going to see.”

For one, the two leads are being played by men. Epperson acknowledged that was not an original concept. He explained that Kirkwood’s memoir “Diary of a Mad Playwright,” which kept the drama swirling around this play alive for so many years, informed some of the rewriting: “The first person [Kirkwood] gave the play to was Mike Nichols, and he said he wanted the two women to be played by men.” Epperson did a staged reading of the play with male leads in Sag Harbor, and, he said, Nichols seemed to think that the casting was right.

“A lot of the audience reaction to that evening stuck in my mind,” Epperson said. “When you think about the things that happen in the play and what the characters do and you think of Mary Martin, you’re kind of embarrassed. But when there are two men in the roles, you can get away with a lot.

“I kept thinking about the audience response, and I thought, ‘What can I lose if I do a rewrite of the play and send it to the agent of the deceased playwright?’”

Evidently he could lose nothing, as the agent never responded.

Epperson then sent it to Whoopi Goldberg with the idea of her doing the role of the African-American housekeeper. Goldberg loved it, said she would do it, and then in the kind of magic that only happens in showbiz, the Kirkwood estate’s agent was interested. And so things began to move.

Epperson next approached Charles Busch, whom Epperson said was the perfect choice to do the show with him. He even gave Busch the choice of roles. Busch will play Sylvia Glenn to Epperson’s Leatrice Monsee and Goldberg’s Aretha.

In Epperson’s rewrite, the character of the housekeeper is significantly built up, and much of the diva’s roles are restored. He’s set the play in 2009, which means that a pay phone becomes a cell, but it also means that Bryan Batt as the producer has a more streamlined role than in the original.

Epperson said that Gary Beach, who played the role originally was so hilarious that Kirkwood expanded his scenes — largely due to the fact that Mary Martin, who was getting her lines fed to her through an earpiece that occasionally picked up taxi signals, was less and less able to carry her part.

“Since Mary Martin is not in this production,” Epperson observed wryly, “I cut the scene and made it shorter.”

Still, even with the stars attached and a new script, Epperson could only get permission for a one-night performance. The reading, which will have a full set and costumes, though books will be in hand, will benefit Friends In Deed, the Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness. Founded by Mike Nichols and Cynthia O’Neal in 1991, the organization provides a variety of free programs supporting people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other grave illness, as well as running HIV prevention programs for teens in city schools and programs for the families, friends, and caregivers of those affected (for more information, visit friendsindeed.org).

Epperson said everyone involved in the benefit had donated their time, including director Mark Waldrop, scenic designer Ray Klausen, costume designer Favio Toblini, lighting and sound designer Matt Berman, and choreographer Josh Rhodes.

When I spoke to him, the show was just about to go into rehearsals, so my desire for dish had to be postponed. For the curious, Epperson has been blogging about the process on his site, Lypsinka.com, and it’s fun reading.

Before I begin to sing “One Night Only” as exhortation to you to buy tickets, I should mention that representatives from the Kirkwood estate will be on hand on the 23rd, and if they like what they see, there may be more interest in a commercial run. Yet, all Epperson would say is, “There are things swirling around, but mum’s the world right now.”

So, I wouldn’t risk missing this. After all, you can always go back… and you would.

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