Charles Busch’s specialty of playing classy ladies with a twist (or is it twisted ladies with class?) makes him an inspired choice to take on an iconic role in gay culture: Mame Dennis. But in this on-the-fly summer production in Ogunquit (and later Sag Harbor), the madcap life force of Beekman Place lacks snap, sophistication and elegance. Busch has displayed all of those qualities, and more, in past performances, but they are oddly absent here.
Perhaps it was the stress of pulling together a full production of the 40-character, 25-scene play spanning continents, decades and decor. The show clearly taxes the resources of what remains of the straw-hat circuit. More stage hours would certainly help. (There were no previews before critics came; the set arrived the day before the show opened.)
But the production still faces a more fundamental problem than missing props or lost cues. Busch seems ill at ease in the title role; the awkward fit recalls the miscasting of Lucille Ball in the film version of the musical based on the play. He’s more like an anti-Mame: Instead of being classy, this Mame is sometimes crude. Instead of being quick on the quip, she’s slow on the draw. Instead of being auntie to us all, she’s a bit of a drag.
Busch doesn’t get help from his longtime designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. He makes his first grand entrance down the celebrated staircase in a freakish outfit and a wig recalling “Annie.” Things improve in this department (with a few relapses), but the damage is done. Busch seems to take his cue from this extreme outfit, which ignores the script’s recipe for clothes that “should make every female theatergoer yearn for such a wardrobe.”
The fast-paced, big-hearted and life-embracing spirit of the 1956 play (based on Patrick Dennis’ 1955 bestseller) only shows up in spurts in this production. Busch’s best moments aren’t his flamboyant or comic ones but rather his tender scenes with 10-year-old nephew Patrick, played with naturalness and ease by a self-possessed Tolan Aman.
Gordana Rashovich serves up delicious Southern guile as Peckerwood’s Sally Cato; Susan Pourfar makes the silly snob Gloria Upson her own; Max von Essen is a charming catch as the older Patrick; Patrick Ryan Sullivan gives masculine solidity to both Lindsay as well as Beauregard, the loves of Mame’s life; Victor Slezak gives Mame’s book collaborator Brian O’Bannion an arty panache; and Michael McCormick manages to get through the part of Asian servant Ito with a smidgen of dignity for himself and the character.
Penny Fuller takes it down a notch as Mame’s oh-so-theatrical pal Vera Charles. But Rashovich’s Gooch is a happy echo of Peggy Cass’ indelible perf as the shy stenographer who lets loose under Mame’s influence.
The gender-bending here, in the end, doesn’t give the familiar material a fresh feeling. Music from the movie only underscores that this is a rush job. Under the direction of Richard Sabellico, it takes its cues quite literally from the beloved movie starring Rosalind Russell. But without the wizardry of Roz, it’s just theatrical karaoke.