BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
The Shanghai you'll visit isn't anything like the current reality, but instead a mystery filled exotic place circa 1931. Its natives are Orientals, not Asians and the visitors from abroad are unashamed in their political incorrectness. What's more, things are never what they seem: A powerful and culture happy General is really a drug trafficker; his wily mistress turns out to be Puerto Rican and the local Madam is not British but Chinese.
The atmosphere of deceitful decadence extends to the visiting British aristocrats, Lord St. John (pronounced sin-jun) Allington and his wife Lady Sylvia. They've come to Shangai not only to gain custody of a valuable Chinese Jade sculpture but to get away from a sex scandal in which Lady Sylvia has been embroiled. Not surprisingly, Lady Allington is not to the manor born. Instead, she is a drunken Chicago railroad man's daughter, raised not on "moonlight and magnolias" but a "steady diet of kielbasa and bitterness."
The travel agent who has arranged for the slow boat to take Lord and Lady Allington on the whirlwind adventure that includes crime, sex and murder adventure is Charles Busch. After his mainstream Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Busch has returned to his roots as a playwright of campy comedies starring himself as tough but vulnerable glamour girls reminiscent of '30s and '40s movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Madeleine Carroll and Bette Davis. The script, inspired by a childhood that turns out to have been profitably spent watching re-runs on TV's Four-Thirty movie hour, is a spoof a number of movies starring these tough but vulnerable sirens of the silver screen; notably: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Stanwyck), The General Died at Dawn (Carroll), Shanghai Express (Dietrich), The Letter (Davis).
Busch's convoluted tale of intrigue has Lady Sylvia fall in love with the sexy drug-dealing General Gong Fei who gets her hooked on opium (while her husband is also drugged to cure his various ailments). It ends in a trial for the murder that brings the Allinghams' escapades under the Shanghai moon to its melodramatic conclusion. The spoof, presented under the auspices of the hit-making Drama Dept, is directed with highest of high campyness and lots of eye-winking innuendos by Carl Andress.
The company has gone all out to transform the tiny Greenwich House stage into a glittering, fantasy of the look and sound of old-world Shanghai. Sea Lions constructed of what looks like silver CDs and emitting smoke are just one of many meticulously detailed touches.
Busch's red-headed, gorgeously gowned Lady Sylvia is of course the one in the spotlight of this Shanghai Moon and Bush obviously has a grand time once again playing a tough-as-nails glamour girl. He has also invested his script with a number of meaty parts, many of them doubly hilarious because of double role playing,
R. D. Wong is an exquisitely evil war lord and art fanatic. Daniel Gerroll delivers a bravura comic take on the doddery Lord Allington and also does full justice to the part of a seaman with his own secret connection to Lady Sylvia. Another double-role player, Becky Ann Baker, enters a walking garden of flowers as the woman outraged by General Gong Fei's destruction of her house of ill repute, and ends up on the side of the law as lady Sylvia's attorney, Sir Geoffrey. Also due a big hand is Sekiya Billman as the crafty Mah Lil.
There are times when even Andress' high octane direction can't keep the show from sagging under the weight of its repetitions and way over-the-top sensibility. However, these moments are few and far between the ninety minutes of good-natured, smartly staged and acted fun.
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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