THE TALE OF CHARLES BUSCH: From Drag Diva to Broadway Farceur

For Charles Busch, it was the shock of a lifetime. In 1984, he and some friends put on a campy show to entertain themselves for a weekend at a nightclub on Avenue C. With Mr. Busch doing a star turn in drag, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” nabbed a cult following, moved to the Provincetown Playhouse, and ran for five years.

Now the 44-year-old playwright and performer has bumped up to an even higher level of visibility in the theater. When a six-minute sketch he wrote and performed about a disaffected housewife blossomed into a full-length play, Mr. Busch handed over the diva role to award-winning Broadway veteran Linda Lavin. Result? “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” was the smash hit of last season in its limited run at Manhattan Theater Club. The production, which was staged by MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow, has moved to Broadway’s Barrymore Theater, where it opens officially this Thursday, November 2.

Ms. Lavin plays Marjorie Taub, a cultured Upper West Sider in the midst of a midlife meltdown. Bereft after the death of her psychiatrist, she seeks a consolation she can’t find from her husband, the well-meaning but never-quite-present Ira (Tony Roberts), let alone her aged mother Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), who is alarmingly eloquent on the subject of her bowels. Into this troubled nest, salvation arrives in the form of a vivacious enigma named Lee (Michele Lee).

The comedy that ensues did not earn universal rave reviews when it first opened. The New Yorker’s John Lahr called it “conservative folderol,” and most reviews mentioned the unsatisfactory ending (which has been reworked for Broadway). Still, largely thanks to Ms. Lavin’s bravura performance, most reviewers shared New York Times critic Ben Brantley’s opinion that “Charles Busch’s window-rattling comedy of midlife malaise on the Upper West Side . . . earns its wall-to-wall laughs.” No less a Broadway authority than Stephen Sondheim said in print that “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” may be “the funniest evening I’ve ever had in the theatre.”

It may be hard for some to believe that “Allergist’s Wife” comes from the same planet, let alone the same pen, as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” On the other hand, those who have followed Mr. Busch’s work closely have a different perspective. Kyle Renick, who produced four of Mr. Busch’s plays at the WPA Theatre over the last decade, describes the new play as “both a new direction for him and a summation of the work he’s been doing for years.”

The question is: how did he get here from there?

“I didn’t set out to be a writer at all,” Mr. Busch cheerfully admitted. in a recent interview. (apartment) Tall and lithe, Mr. Busch has a highly mobile face and expressive eyes that have served him well as a comically androgynous performer. It’s a little surprising to encounter him offstage and discover that he shaves his head. He usually wears wigs, including in his recurring role as a double-crossing cross-dresser in the HBO series “Oz.”

“Ever since I was in the womb, he continued, I wanted to be on the stage. Growing up in New York City and going to Broadway theater since I was a kid, I had a rather pragmatic view of the show biz. In college I realized I was an offbeat type, and the only way I was going to have a career was to create roles for myself.” He started writing material to perform solo, learned the rudiments of style and exposition, and booked himself into gay bars and small theaters around the U.S. “It was kind of like being in vaudeville for six years,” he said.

In the early 1980s, he and director Kenneth Elliott assembled a loose company of performers who put on shows at an East Village nightclub called the Limbo Lounge. “I wrote according to what would be acceptable in that space,” Mr. Busch recalled. “We performed on an empty stage because we had no place to store furniture. And half the audience was standing up drinking beer, so you couldn’t do an elaborate two-act piece. When we first did ‘Vampire Lesbians,’ Ken and I thought, ‘What would we like to see at midnight in the East Village?’ Of course, you’d want something campy and sexy, cute people with not too much on, and a flamboyant drag role for myself. I never thought I was intentionally writing a play. I was just making up lines for us to say, like a vaudeville sketch.” (The film version of “Psycho Beach Party,” a spoof of surf movies which Mr. Busch first performed at the Limbo Lounge in 1986, was well-received when it came out last summer.)

Unlike, say, the late great Charles Ludlam, whose tremendous erudition informed the literate travesties of classic dramas he performed (sometimes in drag) with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Mr. Busch said he never sat down to write a play because he had an idea. “It was to create a marvelous role for myself. Wouldn’t it be fun to be Stanwyck in a Capra comedy, or a Mary Quant-type fashion designer in London, or a Sarah Bernhardt-type role in a 19th century spectacle? Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with theater history, and Bernhardt was a favorite historical figure for me. In a certain crazy sense, I modeled myself on her as actress-manager.”

Invited by Mr. Renick to do a play at the WPA Theater, Mr. Busch found that he was no longer content simply spoofing movie genres. He wrote “The Lady in Question” (1989), ostensibly a take-off on World War II movies, as a critique of the new age philosophy of enlightened selfishness, and “Red Scare on Sunset” (1991) was a comic melodrama set during the McCarthy era with a heroine who spouted a politically incorrect ideology. “As I began creating these vehicles for myself, I gradually, without intending to, became a writer,” said Mr. Busch.

He spent the 1990s experimenting with a variety of forms. “There was a war going on between my three roles as playwright, actor, and faux diva,” he recalled. “I finally felt that for the writer to grow, I’d have to keep the diva unemployed for the time being.” He wrote a novel (“Whores of Lost Atlantis”), a nightclub act, a musical revue, a play in which he took a male role (“didn’t enjoy that too much,” he says now), and a book for Rusty Magee’s musical 1997 “The Green Heart,” which was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. “Minutes after the disappointing reviews came out, Lynne Meadow said she would commit to doing my next play, whatever it was, which a lovely gesture of faith in me.”

Around the same time, Mr. Busch had written a one-man show in which he played several female characters, one of whom was Miriam Passman, a raging Upper West Side housewife desperately in search of self-expression. “This was one of the few times I’d looked at my own suburban Jewish background and the people I grew up with in Hartsdale and Westchester,” he said. “When Lynne invited me to write a play for her, I hoped to develop that character further. But it was hard to come up with a plot that would let her breathe. The various story lines I came up with sounded very sit-commy.”

Having seen the Broadway revival of “A Delicate Balance,” Mr. Busch started thinking, “Wouldn’t it funny to take these Jewish characters and put them in a rather cryptic Albee or Pinter play?” Specifically, the murky relationship between two women and a man in Pinter’s “Old Times” provided a blueprint for “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” “I didn’t intend it to be a genre parody,” said Mr. Busch, “just a mysterious story line with very un-mysterious characters.”

One thing that was clear from the beginning was that Mr. Busch was not going to play any of the female roles in the new play. “I identify very strongly with the character of Marjorie Taub, whose dilemma is that she wants to be an intellectual. I have the same frustrations,” he said. “But I never thought for a second of playing that role. I’m at my best playing a woman and simultaneously commenting on the history of star acting, and that dual consciousness is not what this play is about.”

While the play was gestating in his mind, he happened to see “Death Defying Acts” Off-Broadway, which featured Linda Lavin in one-act plays by Woody Allen and Elaine May. Ms. Lavin’s performance lodged itself in his brain, and he ended up writing the play for her. “Linda is very rare because she’s a brilliant comedienne and knows every possibility of getting laughs, physically or through verbal humor,” said the playwright. “But she also has enormous emotional resources. She’s like a Jewish Anna Magnani. The very moment you’re horrified for her, you’re also laughing.”

For Lynne Meadow, directing the play meant grounding the comedy in emotional reality. “Charles is terribly witty and deeply funny,” she commented in a telephone interview, “but his characters are also very human. This is a play about getting lost somewhere in the middle of life and finding one’s way. Linda knew she had to go to the high wire for this one, and we agreed we would approach the material as if it were ‘Hedda Gabler,’ without worrying about being funny. But I have to tell you, it was hard sometimes in the rehearsal room stifling my laughter.”

Far from monopolizing the laughs in “Allergist’s Wife,” Ms. Lavin’s character has a hardy foil in her mother Frieda. This character, Mr. Busch said, is a composite of his Aunt Belle, who is 88, and his Aunt Lillian, who died a year ago. “It’s wild to hear the audience roaring with laughter at things Aunt Belle said that left us shocked and appalled. When my sister told her she was planning to take a boat trip down the Rhine, Aunt Belle said, ‘I hope you can sleep on pillows filled with Jewish hair.’ When she came to see the play at Manhattan Theater Club, my sisters and I worried that she’d be upset and tried to pretend that it was a portrait of Aunt Lillian. But she recognized everything that came out of her own mouth. And she loved it. She kept saying to the audience members around her, ‘That’s me!’”

One bittersweet aspect of the play’s success is that Aunt Lillian, who raised Mr. Busch after his mother died when he was 7, didn’t live to see it. Talking about her is the only time in the conversation when Mr. Busch’s steady stream of one-liners faltered, and tears surged to the surface. Well, for a minute, anyway. “She was a cross between Auntie Mame and The Miracle Worker,” he recalled. “I was a completely frightened child, and she insisted that nothing should get in the way of me pursuing my creative interests. I had ten years of very difficult struggle before I could make a living in the theater, and she was always there for me.

“It’s ironic that the career I had all these years was based on my sexuality and performing in drag, which was a little too weird for a woman of her generation to embrace. And yet it was only because she made me so confident about myself that I was able to have this very odd career.”


New York Times, October 29, 2000

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