Die! Mommy! Die!” is Charles Busch’s funniest, most accomplished and, without question, raunchiest work. And this from the playwright who gave us such seminal works of late 20th century camp as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “Red Scare on Sunset.” To reveal that the key murder weapon is a suppository does not so much give away the story as reveal whether “Die! Mommy! Die!” will repel or delight your sensibilities. Still with us? The suppository, which is actually laced with insecticide, is inserted rather graphically on stage.
Let it be said, however, that Busch has written a real doozy here. And that doesn’t even begin to do justice to his parade of wigs and pumps which, as always, he wears with considerable grace and understatement.
Imagine if Sophocles hadn’t messed around and had begun his “Electra” not outside but inside the house of Atreus: A mature Hollywood star, Angela Andrews Sussman (Busch), is having problems not only with her increasingly wobbly singing voice but with her increasingly horny daughter, Edith Sussman (Dorie Barton), whose favorite spot in the living room is the lap of her father, film producer Sol Sussman (Greg Mullavey). Some time ago, he put wife Angela in a turkey called “The Song of Marie Antoinette,” from which neither of them have quite recovered.
Eventually (maybe 10 minutes into the play), Edith tries to get her brother, Lance Sussman (Carl Andress), to kill their mother, but because Lance is gay and not very good with firearms and has these ornery headaches that may or may not have something to do with Mom’s substance abuse during her pregnancy, Angela actually has plenty of time to enlist her out-of-work TV-star lover, Tony Parker (Mark Capri), in the murder of Sol. All the while, a maid, Bootsie Carp (Wendy Worthington), plays Greek chorus — that is, until she’s mysteriously knifed to death and returns in act two as her inquisitive twin sister, Verna.
“Die! Mommy! Die” doesn’t ask much of its audience, but the play does answer a question no one has asked in at least 50 years: What would have happened to Norma Shearer if she hadn’t retired from the movies shortly after the death of her husband, Irving Thalberg? Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had the misfortune to end up in movies like “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “Strait-Jacket.” Unfortunately, Shearer, the queen of movie nobility, had too much pride to go that long day’s journey into bad taste. She would have made a good Angela Andrews. Busch makes an even more effective one.
Not only does he sport better legs, he possesses a much greater dramatic range, drawing upon Davis’ walk, Susan Hayward’s delivery and, among a dozen other diva traits, Eve Arden’s hair. These other women keep popping out of his Shearer, and watching them perform together is like being at some wonderful reunion of long-lost split personalities.
Under Kenneth Elliott’s completely over-the-top direction, the cast does perfect justice to this material. Special mention must go to Capri and the character Busch has created for him. Whoever thought to parody Jeff Chandler/Sterling Hayden/Steve Forrest and bring off that rock-stolid sexuality with such panache?
Even the credits abound with inside jokes: Costume design is by Dione H. Lebhar, but in true diva style, Busch rates his own designers, Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. Whatever, the clothes are museum pieces. They dominate the physical production until act two, when B.T. Whitehill’s 1960s Beverly Hills living room explodes into a psychedelic acid trip, which somehow explains everything.
Actually, at the conclusion of “Die! Mommy! Die!” when Busch ties up every plot thread — and there are enough to fashion a whole new Angela Andrews wardrobe — the audience very much stops laughing to listen carefully. Busch, who used to construct his plays as a series of black-out snippets, now sustains the drama in long acts that build magnificently. In a weirdly magical way, the idiocy of it all makes sense — until the exhaust out on Santa Monica Boulevard brings us back to reality.