Charles Busch’s fragile 1989 camp parody of WWII-era anti-Nazi noir thrillers crumbles under the double whammy of a woefully uneven ensemble and helmer Lily Thomassian’s leaden staging. Busch infuses “The Lady in Question” with a plethora of classic film sendups — from Hitchcock’s “Notorious” to “The Sound of Music” — which work only if impeccably performed and paced. This co-production of TLIQ Prods. and Theater Asylum fails on both counts.
Set in 1940 Bavaria, the throwaway plot follows the antics of monumentally self-centered concert pianist Gertrude Garnet (R. Christofer Sands), who is so oblivious to Nazi inhumanity, she gladly agrees to be hosted in the “schloss” of gleefully barbaric Baron Wilhelm Von Elsner (Allan Poe) and his Hitler-manic mother Augusta Von Elsner (Helen Duffy).
It is only after Garnet’s longtime pal Kitty (Sarah Lilly) is brutally murdered that Garnet agrees to join handsome American professor Erik Maxwell (Zeff Zwillinger) in his efforts to rescue his imprisoned mother, famed actress Raina Aldric (also Duffy).
Busch’s satire contains the basic elements of camp melodrama, including the requisite cross-dressing prima donna, exaggerated dialogue, slapstick and a generous infusion of double entendres.
Thomassian undermines the scripter’s intent by methodically plodding through the thematic plotline and failing to underscore or adequately spotlight Busch’s cleverly infused noir nuggets. The satirical energy of the work is further sapped by creakingly ponderous scenic changes, weighted down by Oshin Thomassian’s awkward sets.
For the most part, the ensemble contributes to the production’s inadequacies. Sands’ high-flying Garnet commands the stage, exhibiting a well-honed vocal dexterity and comic timing. However, the Luftwaffe could fly whole squadrons though Sands’ dramatic pauses, which do little to serve his fellow cast members or the production.
Faring better is Lilly, who projects an appealing Eve Arden-like irreverence as wisecracking Kitty. As the other American in Bavaria, Pro-fessor Maxwell, Zwillinger is characterless, as if he’d just learned his lines before coming onstage.
The German dialects among the Bavarian contingent are certainly wide-ranging. The accent of Bryan Neyer’s youthful Karel Freiser ebbs and flows depending on his emotional state. Poe is much more consistent as the supposedly powerful baron, squirming under the scrutiny of his mother.
Exhibiting an intriguing but often-indecipherable vocal impediment, Duffy’s Augusta sounds like Elmer Fudd’s Teutonic grandmother. Andrew Wolfe’s portrayal of the baron’s demonic niece Latte is both undervolumed and tediously measured.
On the plus side, Dale Sandlin offers perfect dual renderings of befuddled Professor Mittelhoffer and the sinister Nazi scientist Dr. Maxi-millian. And Justyna Kelley offers a compelling ingenue turn as idealistic Heidi Mittelhoffer.