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A CurtainUp Review
Die Mommie Die!
By Elyse Sommer
If you think the title Die, Mommie Die! has a familiar ring, you may have seen its 1963 movie version. What's more, that title is meant to instantly evoke images of long gone movie divas like Joan Crawford whose golden oldie hits included Mommie Dearest. After all, Busch's "Mommie," Angela Arden, IS Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and other carefully coiffed, slinky ladies with colorful on and off-screen lives rolled into one killer heroine. And you can interpret that adjective for the heroine —as well as much of the Die, Mommie Die! dialogue — two ways.
Unlike Angela Arden, who's lost her voice as well as her youthful allure, time and legitimate playwriting haven't diminished Busch's ability to do a marvelously breathy diva one whit. He can still have you in stitches watching him flipping his wig (that was actually the title of a 1996 Busch solo at the now defunct WPA theater) as he sashays around a live stage in one drop dead outfit after another. Neither has he lost his knack for creating eccentric characters (a film mogul who sees Elizabeth Taylor as the perfect star for the Billie Holiday story) and bizarre plots (a series of murders that actually begin years before with the death of the leading lady's twin sister). These elements play out as tossed salad made up of sight gags (a huge poisoned suppository), spicy tropes ("You can't discard me like one of your false eyelashes"), sly show biz references (the grieving daughter of the dead mogul ordering the rooms shrouded in black and declaring that "mourning becomes this household").
As Busch has packed his comedy-thriller with referential shtick and bawdy gags, so director Carl Andress moves everything along like a super express train. The conceit is to replay the House of Atreus tragedy with a 1960s Hollywood twist. Thus the family headed for a fall is named Sussman -- that's producer Sol Sussman (Bob Ari), his no longer beloved wife Angela (Busch), mommie hating and daddy loving daughter Edith (Ashley Morris) and mommie loving, daddy hating and not too smart son Lance. There are two other characters who pump up the family hostilities: the family retainer Bootsy Camp (the scene stealing Kristine Nielsen), a religious fanatic with a taste for alcohol and a passion for getting Richard Nixon elected and an unemployed actor named Tony Parker (Chris Hoch), an equal opportunity sexual predator who's Angela's current lover.
While Die Mommie Die! is a throwback to Busch's drag star days it's not Off-Off but high profile Off-Broadway with Broadway worthy production values. From a projected opening view of a Sunset Boulevard like exterior that introduces a terrific video montage of headlines about Angela's glory days and her sister Barbara's suicide, it's on to Michael Anania's epitome-of-glitz Beverly Hills mansion. Equally loaded with touches that make their own comic statements are the costumes (by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case for Angela and by the talented Jessica Jahn for everyone else).
The staging is almost too fancy for a show with so much overly broad comic business, much of it heavily reliant on bathroom humor. This may account for the fact that not all of it hits its mark as effectively as the scissor Angela at one point throws at the bratty daddy-fixated Edith and which, by a sleight-of-hand theatrical trick, lands in her cheek. Still, Busch is a gifted enough writer and performer to wrap some weightier ideas about female self-empowerment inside his campy spoof (for example, when Angela inserts that deadly rocket-sized suppository into her phsyically and mentally constipated husband she manages to do so with a manifesto for female sexual equality). Whether serious or silly, there's plenty of fun to be had from this merrily manic cast — most especially when Busch and the incomparable Kristine Nielsen are on stage.
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