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A CurtainUp Review
The Tribute Artist
By Elyse Sommer
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.