“The Tribute Artist” at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday March 16, 2014)

February 9, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags: ,
Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Carl Andress
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Charles Busch and his band of merry-makers have pitched camp (for all too short a time) at 59E59 Theater A for the final offering in Primary Stages’ twenty-ninth Season, Mr. Busch’s gender-bending and exquisite “The Tribute Artist.” The result of this incursion into the winter blues is nothing short of brilliant. From cast to creative team to direction, this delicious dip into debauchery brims with over-the-top humor and a subtle entreaty for the return of honesty in human relationships. But first, the dip into the debauchery.

After disposing of wealthy recluse friend Adriana’s (Cynthia Harris) body, celebrity tribute artist Jimmy (Charles Busch) and real estate friend Rita (Julie Halston) hatch a “fool-proof” plot to dispose of Adriana’s body using a fake identity and find a way to sell her West Village townhouse and split the enormous profits. Sharing the twenty million deal would solve Jimmy’s unemployed problem – his Vegas celebrity tribute show cancelled – and Rita’s less than stellar realtor rating – 1.5 out of 4.

The plot – which naturally proves not to be fool-proof – involves Jimmy posing as the deceased Adriana until Rita can sell the townhouse. The two decide to live in Adriana’s townhouse unnoticed by authorities, neighbors, or incompetent housekeepers: fortunately – and in the refined improbably style of farce – Adriana provides all the necessary exposition before expiring. This hastily-hatched plan begins to quickly unravel at the tattered seams of Adriana’s castaway clothes. Niece Christina (Mary Bacon) arrives with her “tran-man” daughter/son Oliver (Keira Keeley) to claim the townhouse as her own. Christina completely buys into the sham and Oliver falls head-over-heels in love with his new auntie. To further complicate the plot, Oliver friends (the real) Adriana’s former lover Rodney (Jonathan Walker) on Facebook and invites him back into auntie’s life and love. And, naturally, Jimmy – playing Adriana – takes a romantic shine to Rodney who discovers the “grand dame’s” true gender and threatens to expose the plot if Jimmy rats on Rodney.

The complex and well-rounded characters in this solid farce are so unbelievable they become completely credible due to the formidable skills of the cast and the oversight of director Carl Andress who transforms the complicated conflicts of the characters into an engaging and interesting comedic drama. It would not be fair to expose the plot in detail. It is sufficient to say that it involves an orgy, dismembered human remains, at least one dead body in the basement of the townhouse, gender-bending hilarity, and a powerful performance by Keira Keely whose bullied and culture-battered Oliver manages to provide the tenderness and compassion missing in the lives of the other characters.

And there are a host of other unseen characters who burst forth from tribute artist Jimmy’s repertoire throughout the play. At the end of the second act, Jimmy floods the stage with impersonations which Rita identifies, asserting that “there are people in this room who do not know your references!” Again, to be fair to future audience members, this pantheon of drag favorites will not be fully disclosed here but it is sufficient to note that Marilyn, Betty, Rosalind and their ilk are not in short supply.

With the skill of a surgeon, Charles Busch is able to eviscerate his carefully crafted characters to reveal – beneath the layers of assumed superficiality – the core of honesty and tender humanness. These are all characters attempting to make sense of the fractured farcicalities of life on planet Earth. And every good farce needs an equally good set and Anna Louizos does not disappoint, providing a scrumptious well-appointed townhouse drawing room replete with wedding cake ceiling molding, seamless sliding doors, and a rock-solid period staircase. Gregory Gales’ costumes are perfect all around and Kirk Bookman’s subtle lighting and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound create appropriate mood including the thunder and lightning that forebodes the falling action in the second act. Finally, Katherine Carr’s wigs are wildly spot on.

Charles Busch’s character Jimmy claims early on to Rita – after she defines his art as “drag” – that he is not someone who performs in drag; rather, he is a celebrity tribute artist, an illusionist. Jimmy describes Charles’ art form with precision and perfection: Mr. Busch remains one of the stage’s most creative, innovative, and talented actors who continue to deliver performances defined by authenticity and honesty. “The Tribute Artist” is a tribute to Mr. Busch’s legacy and brilliance as an illusionist. Jimmy says early on to Rita, “The more honest you are, the more people believe you.”