Gliding around in smart 1960s pantsuits and immaculate wigs, Charles Busch is radiant in his play, “Die Mommie Die!” But his campy drag glamour is made even more satisfying by the vehicle built around it. Thanks to Busch’s script and exceptional leading perf, the surfaces of this comedy-thriller — about the murderous meltdown of the pre-Nixon Hollywood family — roll back to reveal provocative statements about the power women can lose when a man walks into the room.
The show also has plenty to offer auds who don’t care to partake of its messages. Borrowing as much from Busch’s 2003 film adaptation as his original 1999 play (not previously seen in New York), Carl Andress’ production offers at least three points of access.
Those seeking pure entertainment can savor the ludicrous-yet-stylish tone. From its opening moments — which include a photo montage of Angela Arden (Busch) descending from 1950s pop star to 1960s disaster — the show delivers an exquisite parody of trashy films like “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Characters are always hurling insults or double entendres, and their lines are usually matched with severe hand gestures and music cues.
The designers wrap everything with quotation marks. When Angela sneaks a bottle of arsenic onto the opulent parlor room set — she plans to poison her heartless, movie producer husband, Sol (Bob Ari) — Ben Stanton does more than shine a spotlight on her. He shifts from natural lighting to an amber wash, so it looks like Angela has entered a fantasy sequence. It’s such an over-the-top gesture it makes her wickedness even funnier.
Similarly, costumer Jessica Jahn cheekily defines Angela’s children, who decide to punish their mother for killing their father. Edith (Ashley Morris), a Lolita with daddy issues, wears frocks that say both “little girl” and “little tramp.” Lance (Van Hansis) wears such skimpy shorts it’s obvious why he wants to try on mommie’s hair.
The design is charming because the actors don’t acknowledge what it’s telling us. Director Andress steers everyone toward straight-faced perfs that never oversell a joke. The deadpan leaves some of the cast looking wooden, but Ari and Kristine Nielsen, as Angela’s suspicious, Republican maid, are deliciously self-righteous.
It’s Busch, though, who gives the master class on camp acting. His rich physical and vocal palette prove that Angela is a woman of good breeding who could snap at any second. Busch uses plenty of vocal tics and zany facial expressions, but they’re dramatically justified. Instead of constantly begging for laughs, he simply plays what the scene requires.
Busch’s craft as a writer provides another way into the production. Not only does he parody the House of Atreus, dropping regular references to Clytemnestra and Electra, he also gives each scene an interesting structure, letting small details surface in satisfying ways.
The play’s raunchiest moment, involving Angela’s chosen method of poisoning Sol, also illustrates its larger purpose — that Angela is desperate to punish her husband for his emotional crimes. Earlier, we’ve seen how everyone else in the play arranges themselves around Sol’s needs, leaving Angela’s on the sidelines. At one point he even refers to his wife as his property.
The giddily cracked conclusion suggests that women are destined to be dominated by something — either their careers or their families — unless they seek solitude. But even that freedom is suspicious, since the heroine is played by a man.
Those elements create a sting of serious drama, hidden like pins inside Angela’s gown.