A time capsule has been uncorked at the Zipper Theater. When John Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan Crawford performs “The Passion of the Crawford,” it might as well be spring 1975 at the Bouwerie Lane Theater. Even the audience is the same, albeit 30 years older. But even on opening night, the tiny Zipper was not sold out. If nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, then camp surely has folded its tent and Epperson has become the Madame Tussaud of drag.
His “Passion,” not to be confused with Mel Gibson’s, begs a question not asked in nearly a decade: Why do female impersonators keep on mining the same Hollywood graveyard of Crawford, Davis, Garland, Minnelli? It’s as if J. Lo, Kim Cattrall and Kathleen Turner never happened.
Epperson’s task here is formidable, but then he demands much of an already shrinking audience. Unlike his shows “As I Lay Lip-Synching,” “I Could Go on Lip-Synching” and “Now It Can Be Lip-Synched,” there’s no singing, not even lip-synched singing, in “The Passion of the Crawford.”
The overwhelming minimalism of the project brings to mind the great works of Ozu, Beckett and Mondrian. Imagine a man in a dress mouthing the words spoken by Crawford in an interview given to John Springer in 1973. (The late great publicist conducted several such in-concert talks with movie divas in the early 1970s, meaning “The Passion of the Davis” and “The Passion of the Turner” may well be in the works.)
Credited as merely the Interviewer, Steve Cuiffo mouths Springer’s voice with considerable understatement, leaving the histrionics to his onstage partner, who rolls her eyeballs with real distinction.
Interspersed throughout their chat are flashbacks, signaled by red lights and Bernard Herrmann’s discordant violin riffs from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.” Suddenly, Cuiffo as Springer and Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan Crawford are transported back to a 1949 Christmas radio chat featuring the actress’s two children, Christopher and Christina.
When Epperson first appears onstage at the Zipper, he looks not like Crawford but Arlene Dahl as channeled by Charles Busch. Ultimately, Epperson overcomes his own delicately pinched features and, as if tossing Lypsinka aside, wills himself to be Crawford. Head back, nostrils flaired, painted lips pulsating, Epperson screams, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!,” a line he delivers with utter conviction and authenticity. So what if it’s Faye Dunaway doing Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” and it’s all on tape, anyway?
Joan and Faye occasionally play tricks on Epperson, their voices coming at him a beat or two earlier than he anticipates so his lips have to play catch-up. Apparently, lip-synching someone’s speaking voice is a lot tougher than following the vocal line of a song.
In the end, Epperson’s obsession would make a much better evening in the theater than his “Passion.” Imagine the humble studio apartment as designed by John Lee Beatty. Surrounded by showbiz clutter, sitting center stage and watching hour after hour of TCM, is Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan Crawford as costumed by William Ivey Long. He never speaks. He just mouths.