Three concurrent narratives comprising “The Third Story” allow each tale to speak to the others, chattering away on the gender-bending star Charles Busch’s familiar themes of stifling motherhood and misbehaving doppelgangers. But speak to us? Not so much. In its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, “The Third Story” is an eyeful, but dramatically, there’s less there than meets that eye.
Bulk of stage time is given over to one of Busch’s reputation-making camp-movie parodies like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” This one is a ’40s gangsters-meet-zombies meller in which dazzling, dying mob boss Queenie Bartlett (Busch) enlists Dr. Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck) to produce a clone to maintain her vast syndicate and watch over son Steve (Jonathan Walker). Hudson, yet to learn what man should not tamper with, has her own mama-drama going as a failed lab experiment named Zygote (Scott Parkinson) prowls the night.
Busch’s heart doesn’t seem to be in this extravaganza of tired characters and situations. Queenie is just another stylized Busch diva in mock Balenciaga (kudos to witty costumer Gregory Gale); we never see her running her mob, and planted ticking clocks (her fatal disease and a congressional investigation) just lie there, inert.
“Psycho Beach Party” wickedly explored the kinky undertones of Gidget and Annette, but as this plot gets more elaborate (and talkier), it becomes ever more remote from any discernible satiric target.
The B-movie hogwash, we discover, is the product of a mother-and-son pair of screenwriters — or more accurately, it emerges from conversations on their past and future. Peg (Mary Beth Peil, all cracked-ice and tart anecdote) is one of those literary ladies who built Hollywood back in the day. Seeking a postwar comeback, she pursues her onetime screenwriter son Drew (Walker) to Omaha, where he’s turned postman, rejecting both mom and the movies.
Alas, their wrangles are even less compelling than Queenie’s efforts to wrest the cloning formula from the nutty doctor. The details just don’t ring true. There seems no particular reason why Peg needs Drew as a collaborator nor any reason for him to resist, but on and on they jaw nevertheless, raking up old coals and dropping long-hidden secrets in a vain attempt to create momentum.
Where “The Third Story” perks up is in its third story, featuring the gnarled Russian witch Baba Yaga (Busch, of course) and her bargain with the sad, inarticulate Princess Vasalisa (Rebecca Lawrence). In exchange for a firebird’s feather, the crone will clone a prettier and wittier Vasalisa to earn the offstage love of Prince Mishka and then be sent to perdition upon the marriage.
As it happens, virtually all the characters know the Baba Yaga story and comment upon it. This texturing doesn’t make any of the narratives more interesting, but it does allow designer David Gallo to fly in enchanting bits of fairyland under Christopher Akerlind’s luscious lighting, Lawrence to beguile as both princesses and Busch to revel in acting demands different from his usual cynical matrons.
Perhaps a classic Busch stock company would make more of even these thin strands than helmer Carl Andress’ pickup team, working in wholly different styles. Walker brings only whiny petulance to Drew and never convinces as mobster Steve. Peil lacks the farceuse variety needed for Dr. Hudson’s colleague Rutenspitz, and Van Dyck inhabits a single dour dimension as she struggles with her exposition (one long speech about twins is particularly deadly).
Other than Busch himself, whom it’s a pleasure to see cracking wise and mugging expertly, only Parkinson seems to “get” this high-camp, high-comedy world, nastily misshapen as the maniacal Zygote but never less than endearing, always light on his club feet.
It might have been fun to set Baba Yaga and Zygote onto Hollywood directly, making short work of movie moguls, congressional blowhards and the scientific establishment alike. But that’s another story.