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A CurtainUp Review
The Tribute Artist

"If only we had the guts to follow through on something like this, but we don't. We're small people, Jimmy."—Rita

"If we only had the guts. If we only had the guts. We have the guts, Rita. We have the guts. Desperation gives you the guts. Why shouldn't we survive? Why shouldn't we know happiness? Why shouldn't we know luxury? We're not bad people. We've made bad choices. . ."— Jimmy, the unemployed female impersonator of old-time Hollywood divas as he and his equally desperate for financial security friend Rita contemplate a scheme to use a suddenly owner-less brownstone to turn their fortunes around.
Tribute Artist
Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch (Photo: James Leynse)
The scheme discussed by Charles Busch's Jimmy and Julie Halston's Rita involves the 4-story Greenwich townhouse that Anna Louizos created for Bushch's new comedy The Tribute Artist. The parlor and staircase in which this madcap farce unfolds is the stuff of many New Yorkers' dreams. It's owned by Adriana (Cynthia Harris), the 80-something and not in the best of health widow of a man rich enough for her to live in what Rita calls "aristocratic splendor" even though her exclusive clothing design business fell victim to a dying clientele.

Things get off to a great start with the initial interchanges in that to-die-for set resulting in the kind of non-stop laughter that drowns out some lines. It seems that Adriana has allowed Jimmy to be a paying guest whenever he returns to New York from his Las Vegas job. And whenever Jimmy is there so is Rita, his former cabaret comic act partner turned realtor.

Jimmy's permanent return to Manhattan because he's been fired from the Flamingo Hotel's Boys Will Be Girls revue is at once timely and untimely. Adriana is giving away all the clothes left over from her fashion business and Jimmy is thrilled to don some of these elegant gowns, as well as her wig. The more untimely aspect of his current townhouse residency is that Adriana's reason for getting rid of her designer business leftovers and semi-reclusive current life style is that she feels the hand of the grim reaper on her shoulder — which means Jimmy may find himself without his beautiful and affordable New York digs.

With Busch back in wig, gowns and heels and paired with his long-time collaborator and friend Halston, you expect lots of laughs from Rita and Jimmy. (Think The Divine Sister , their hilarious sendup of Hollywood's penchant for nun movies). But Cynthia Harris, who so impressively played the forbidding grandmother in TACT's revival of Lost In Yonkers , fits right in. As a matter of fact, she is so terrific that you wish she could hang around longer and perhaps do another of the hilarious monologues that Mr. Busch tends to write for the characters in all his playss, even his conventional Broadway comedy, Tale of the Allergist's Wife .

Naturally, if Busch didn't arrange to have Harris's Adriana die, he wouldn't be able to have Rita concoct a scheme to hold onto her house long enough to make a multi-million dollar sale that will enable her and Jimmy to buy smaller but upscale apartments and live comfortably. But hold on! Before you leap to the conclusion that this is a comic murder mystery, bear in mind that though Rita and Jimmy are pretty desperate and thus ready to do desperate things, they're not killers. Adriana dies in her sleep and the killing they have in mind is a real estate killing.

The decidedly illegal and wacky scheme that drives the plot calls for Jimmy to do a brand-new impersonatio and a variety of gender bending twists and turns. In a departure from his usual female drag performances, Mr. Busch here plays a man who works as a drag artist. While there are references to his favorite La-La land femme fatales, the impersonation here is in the interest of the shady deal. The impersonation is of a real, less famous woman — you guessed it, the recently deceased friend and landlady.

The idea is to make this far-fetched scheme work despite the appearance of three other characters. For starters we have Christina (Mary Bacon, who's supposed to be shrill but tends to overdo it), a depressed and volatile relative with a legal claim to the house and her transgendered, smart and sweet teenaged son Oliver (Keira Keely, making the most of a small role). There's also Rodney (Jonathan Walker, another Busch production veteran), Adriana's unsavory former boy toy lover.

Not all of these farcical variations on movies starring males posing as females (think Tootsie and Some Like It Hot) work as effectively as that opening scene. What follows has quite a few slow spots though there's just enough comic momentum throughout to please Busch's many fans. Still, if asked to rank his plays and performances in order of preference, it's unlikely that The Tribute Artist would top The Divine Sister or Die Mommie Die .

Primary Stages certainly can't be faulted for The Tribute Artist's falling short of top-drawer Busch. They've put all their resources behind the play they commissioned. Anna Louizos's gorgeously detailed set is supported with expert lighting and sound design by Kirk Bookman and Jill BC Du Boff. Gregory Gale has not only supplied wonderful gowns for Busch but smartly outfitted the entire ensemble, including some very smartly tailored suits for Ms. Halston. Carl Andress, who has directed numerous Busch plays, keeps his as usual steady grip on the cast's moves from wild to wilder moments and does his best to ramp up the classic Busch moments.

With so little attention paid by stage and screen writers to contemporary issues of class, inequality and morality, Mr. Busch deserves a pat on the back for building his laugh fest on a serious foundation: the unfunny problems of lowered or no incomes and unaffordable housing facing people in today's difficult economy. Jimmy and Rita may not deserve to cash in on a valuable mansion they don't own and it's unlikely that anyone could bring off this unlikely tour-de-farce. But it's easy to understand what drives desperate people like them to desperate acts.

ThE Tribute Artist
Written by Charles Bush
Directed by Carl Andress
Cast: Starring Charles Busch (Jimmy), Mary Bacon (Christina), Cynthia Harris (Adriana), Julie Halston (Rita), Keira Keeley (Oliver), Jonathan Walker (Rodney)
Scenic design: Anna Louizos
Costume design: Gregory Gale
Lighting design: Kirk Bookman
Sound design: Jill BC Du Boff
Original music: Lewis Flynn
Wig design: Katherine Carr
Stage Manager: Trisha Henson
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (212) 840-9705
From 1/21/14; opening 2/09/14; closing 3/16/14
Tuesday-Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. There will be a special Wednesday matinee at 2pm on Wednesday, February 19. There is no performance on March 5 and March 12.
Single tickets are priced at $70 for all performances
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 5th press preview
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