Friday, February 20, 2009

The Third Story

When I first moved to New York in 1987, Charles Busch's camp classic, Vampire Lesbian of Sodom, was still a smash hit Off Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse (back in the day when plays were actually performed at the Provincetown). I don't have a problem with campy theater but it's not anything I seek out, either, so I never saw that production. A few years ago, I saw a very entertaining staged reading of Busch's The Lady in Question by TOSOS II in the basement at the Monster; director Mark Finley treated the piece as though it was a radio play, which highlighted the convention of the reading and reinforced the WWII-era B-movie propaganda story very well. This week, I had tickets for Busch's latest play, The Third Story, at the Lucille Lortel on Tuesday night. I'd been hearing quite a lot of bad word-of-mouth about the production; needless to say, I sat down determined to keep an open mind until I had seen for myself.

I found the script to be the weakest element, really. Plot-wise, it's complicated: a Hollywood screenwriter—Kathleen Turner—who is also an overbearing mother, follows her son—Jonathan Walker—who is a former screenwriter, to Omaha, where he has fled to escape her and the film industry. She desperately needs to cajole him into collaborating with her on a script for reasons that change throughout the play. Whenever she attempts to brainstorm ideas with him, those ideas come to life in the performances of Charles Busch (in drag, as one would expect), Jennifer Van Dyck, Sarah Rafferty and Scott Parkinson; they all play a variety of characters in three stories (the third story, we are told, is always the best one) and all in different film genres: gangster, fairy tale, and science-fiction. There are some good ideas throughout the piece and several very funny moments but they don't ever gel into anything coherent. Because Turner's character keeps switching back and forth between the three story ideas, I saw no evidence that the third one was any better or worse than the other two; it certainly wasn't clear to me what point Busch was trying to make with any of them.

On the positive side, the acting is uniformly good and incredibly hammy—which is entirely appropriate in this sort of production; it's well-paced and supports Busch's style of humor—traditional set ups and punchlines, for the most part, with lots of opportunities for mugging—nicely; and all of the design elements—sets, lights and costumes—are effective. If the script had even been on par with the rest of the show, The Third Story might have been a pleasant diversion. Instead, it was just one story too long... or maybe two...

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