Some supporting characters involved in momentous historical events have the potential to be as intriguing as the protagonists themselves. Take Laura Keene, the actress performing onstage at Ford’s Theater in “Our American Cousin” the night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. But in his fictionalized account of events surrounding that scar on the national psyche, Charles Busch has developed a larger-than-life figure while providing her with only a flimsy dramatic purpose. Despite Kate Mulgrew’s entertainingly arch performance in the title role, “Our Leading Lady” drifts awkwardly between madcap comedy and prosaic reflections on the insular world of the theater.
Busch teamed previously in 2000 with Manhattan Theater Club and director Lynne Meadow on “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” another showcase for a female lead, which segued successfully from the company’s same second-stage venue to a Broadway run and road dates. But lightning hasn’t struck twice.
While “Our Leading Lady” delivers its share of laughs via acerbic dialogue and campy characterizations, particularly in the opening scenes, the play is structurally chaotic and overstretched. As a brisk one-act, it might have had more zing. But in its current form, this is a tonal rollercoaster that wades through excessive preamble to the fateful shooting, then zips hastily through the actual event before getting lost in discursive aftermath.
The broad playing and frenetic atmosphere orchestrated by Meadow amplify the play’s weaknesses. And despite designer Santo Loquasto’s attempt to compensate with a fake proscenium arch, the utilitarian City Center Stage II space is a poor fit for a comedy steeped in theatrical artifice that cries out for a kitschy, gilt-edged frame.
In Busch’s account, actress-manager and self-described “visiting star” Keene is attempting to bounce back from the failure of her New York repertory company with a secret plot to take over the running of Ford’s and replace the motley regulars with actors of her choosing. The prospect of President Lincoln in the audience stands to increase her leverage.
Bearing more than a trace of Katharine Hepburn (whom she played in “Tea at Five”) in her imperious intonations, Mulgrew makes a regal grande dame of Laura — a Cockney barmaid with two illegitimate daughters stashed in convent school who has reinvented herself as a theatrical luminary. A lofty diva not unlike those played by Busch in his own cross-dressing turns, Laura lords it over the company, whose talents she clearly regards as inferior. She’s too high on self-aggrandizement to be wounded by their barbs or to be concerned about their resentment of her exacting professional standards, forcing them “to rehearse this shabby little comedy as if it were ‘King Lear,’ ” as one character puts it.
Handsomely outfitted in Jane Greenwood’s period costumes, the Ford’s rep players are an assembly of droll variations on stock thespian figures. They include Verbena De Chamblay (Kristine Nielsen), a faded Southern flower whose proud Confederate sympathies create conflict, and her husband, Gavin (Reed Birney), a closet queen not so secretly lusting after Ferguson (Billy Wheelan), the green and God-fearing understudy.
Then there’s booze-swilling leading man Harry Hawk (Maxwell Caulfield), who’s having a clandestine affair with Laura; daffy old stage vet Maude Bentley (Barbara Bryne), whose world extends no further than the footlights; and wooden ingenue Clementine Smith (Amy Rutberg). Finally, there’s Laura’s enigmatic maid, confidante and spy, who goes by Madame Wu-Chan (Ann Duquesnay) and speaks with the boss in pidgin Mandarin.
Busch makes affectionate observations about the theater as a closed world of shameless self-absorption and artful deception in which roles are played on and offstage. But while many of the lines are delectably bitchy, the comedy lacks shape overall.
The playwright’s attempt to comment on women’s marginalized roles is underdeveloped, as is the metaphor of the theater as a prejudicially viewed minority group with its own rocky internal harmony. The play loses steam gradually through the first act and stalls during the messy staging of the fateful performance when Lincoln is shot and Booth escapes through the wings. It then begins seriously unraveling as Busch takes a more melancholy turn as a shaken Laura and Wu-Chan reveal something of their true selves to each other. Worse, however, is the limp resolution, during which a cartoonish cop (J.R. Horne) gathers everyone together for an Agatha Christie-type interrogation with no mystery at stake.
Cast is uneven, with Nielsen phoning in her usual bug-eyed shtick and Duquesnay struggling to sell a role basically presented as a gag. Mulgrew gives a ripe, over-the-top turn, but she’s a deluxe leading lady in a rickety vehicle.