Charles Busch is a living legend with talent oozing from every pore. For decades the multi-hyphenate artist (playwright-actor-cabaret performer-director-teacher-novelist-drag doyenne) has been a beloved fixture in New York theater, not to mention a queer icon.
Obsessed with campy, overwrought 1930s movies featuring tough-as-nails broads, Busch has written and starred in more than 25 parody-rich plays such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “Red Scare on Sunset,” and “The Divine Sister.” And he shows no signs of slowing down.
There aren’t many 65-year-old men who would hazard the role of a naïve teen girl and knock it out of the park. But that’s exactly what Busch does — and then some — in his latest cockamamie confection, “The Confession of Lily Dare,” courtesy of Primary Stages.
Inspired by tawdry weepies like “Madame X” and “Frisco Jenny,” the convoluted plot is vintage Busch. Set in San Francisco in the early 20th century, it traces the rise and fall of one Lily Dare (played by Busch, natch), an orphan full of pluck and vinegar who catapults from convent schoolgirl to cabaret chanteuse to hardened jailbird to whorehouse impresario.
The wry melodrama is framed by scenes of Lily’s longtime confidantes — her pansy piano player, Mickey (Kendal Sparks), and Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson), a former prostitute — who stand at Lily’s graveside recalling the events. In flashback we witness how the 1906 earthquake shatters Lily’s world, killing her fiancé and her Aunt Rosalie. Later, Lily lands in the clink after being double-crossed by Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin), a filthy rich cad who gets his comeuppance by losing everything in the stock market crash of 1929.
One dizzying subplot involves Lily’s daughter Louise, who ends up being raised by a wealthy couple (don’t ask). Louise grows up to become a world-famous opera diva, on par with Jenny Lind. Will the down-and-out Lily be able to connect with her long lost daughter before meeting a tragic end?
Rest assured, “The Confession of Lily Dare” elicits the guffaws we expect from a Busch farce. The dialogue is sharp and sublime, preposterous in a good way. The costumes (by Jessica Jahn and Rachel Townsend) and wigs (by Katherine Carr) are dazzling and on point. Longtime collaborator Carl Andress is at the helm, ensuring the performances are outrageous yet rooted in reality. Though for my taste, I’d prefer the drollery goosed up even more.
Busch’s turn is brilliant as ever. One moment he’s channeling Hayley Mills, then Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Bette Davis. It’s as much about the delivery and facial expressions as the actual dialogue. When young Lily recounts her exciting cross-country journey to Frisco, she is chipper until the end of the story. “Don’t ask me about To-pe-ka,” Busch growls with his trademark grimace.
The supporting cast threatens to upstage the star, no easy feat. The versatile Christopher Borg and Jennifer van Dyck are exceptional juggling multiple roles. Borg plays Lily’s doomed fiancé, a decadent Austrian baron, Louise’s adoptive father, an Italian maestro, and an Irish priest, all with wildly exaggerated accents. Van Dyck portrays the brusque Aunt Rosalie, Louise’s adoptive mother, an adventurous baroness, and, oddly enough, young Louise.
The production is a nice fit for the historic and intimate Cherry Lane Theatre, a bastion of counterculture and billed as New York’s longest continually running Off-Broadway theater. Busch’s career was established in similar downtown venues (one exception being “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a surprise hit that transferred to Broadway in 2000).
The scenic design, by B.T. Whitehill, is dominated by a backdrop painted with a gaudy psychedelic pattern suggesting a cartoon bordello on acid. The proscenium, if you look carefully, appears to be made of crimson plastic dinner plates and bottles strung together. Surely this is a nod to the ultra-creative, micro-budget, DIY aesthetic that drove Busch when he first trod the boards in the Village some 40 years ago.
THE CONFESSION OF LILY DARE | Primary Stages | Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. near Bedford St. | Through Mar. 5: Tue.- Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $82-$152 at primarystages.org | Two hrs., with intermission