×

Off Broadway Review: ‘The Tribute Artist’

Charles Busch and Julie Halston re-team for a Manhattan real estate farce that will play best to the in-crowd of Busch fans.

With:

Mary Bacon, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Cynthia Harris, Keira Keeley, Jonathan Walker.

The swarms of fans who are drawn, moth-like, to the incandescent flame that is Charles Busch will no doubt fly to “The Tribute Artist.” This frantic farce unites the scribe/performer with his bff Julie Halston in a not-entirely-fanciful plot about the insane, illegal and frequently criminal measures that desperate people will stoop to, just to get their hands on a nice piece of Manhattan real estate.  But unlike “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a break-out mainstream hit for the scribe in 2000, this playful comedy is strictly for the in crowd. 

The property in question is a handsome four-story townhouse in the West Village.  Its elegant architectural features (moldings, staircase, built-in bookcases, pocket doors) reflect the skill of set designer Anna Louizos.  But the fusty furnishings mirror the taste of its elderly owner, an imperious grande dame named Adriana (Cynthia Harris, giving a master class in hauteur), a European couturier who has decided to divest herself of all her worldly possessions — or at least the caftans, wigs and feather boas.

The primary recipient of all this largesse is Adriana’s friend and tenant, a female impersonator named Jimmy Nichols (Charles Busch, playing himself — divinely).  Although he looks ravishing in Adriana’s schmattas, don’t dare call him a drag queen.  “I’m a celebrity tribute artist,” he insists.  “I recreate legendary female performers.  I’m an illusionist.”

And indeed he is.  Before the play has run its course, Busch will regale the faithful with loving impersonations of Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and other immortal bitch-divas in the defining roles of their careers. To give each cameo performance its own little twist, Jimmy’s best friend, a wisecracking lesbian named Rita (the ineffable Halston, a legend in her own time), is on hand to identify diva, role and movie title.

But there’s no place for classic impressions like these in an entertainment world clamoring for Rihanna and Beyonce, and after losing almost all his enduring roles, Jimmy has been fired from his Vegas job in the Flamingo Hotel’s “Boys Will Be Girls Revue.”   Which is why Rita, a real estate agent fallen on hard times in this unforgiving market, easily talks him into impersonating Adriana after the old dear passes away peacefully in the night.  Not for forever — just long enough for Rita to sell the house.

Once Jimmy and Rita put their unlawful plan into action, trouble literally comes calling.  Adriana’s sourpuss niece, Christina (Mary Bacon), and her transgendered daughter/son, Rachel/Oliver (Keira Keeley), arrive from Milwaukee to make sure that dear Aunt Adriana names them as her heirs. Adriana’s long-ago lover, Rodney Ash (Jonathan Walker), also shows up to make our two partners in crime extremely uneasy.  With all these interlopers in the house, it’s only a matter of time before Jimmy’s impersonation is discovered.

Considering the outrageous shenanigans that people actually do get up to in the cutthroat world of Manhattan real-estate — or in the hectic comedies of Joe Orton and Georges Feydeau — the antics here are pretty tame.  And while Busch’s longtime director, Carl Andress, aims for the high comic style of classic farce, the plot complications aren’t witty or zany enough to sustain that line of attack.  All the characters are one-dimensional, which is not necessarily a bad thing in farce, but only Busch and Halston relate to their characters as if they were human.

Interesting note:  In addition to mounting this slick show with Primary Stages, producer Daryl Roth takes an active role in licensing Charles Busch’s total oeuvre (and their original production designs) to regional theaters who feel up to the challenge.

Off Broadway Review: 'The Tribute Artist'

59E59 Theaters; 198 seats; $70 top.  Opened Feb. 9, 2014.  Reviewed Feb. 6.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, TEN MIN.

Production:

A Primary Stages, Daryl Roth and Ted Snowdon presentation, in association with Jamie deRoy, of a play in two acts by Charles Busch.

Creative:

Directed by Carl Andress.  Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Gregory Gale; lighting, Kirk Bookman; sound, Jill BC Du Boff;  music, Lewis Finn; wigs, Katherine Carr; production stage manager, Trisha Henson.

Cast:

Mary Bacon, Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Cynthia Harris, Keira Keeley, Jonathan Walker.

More Legit

  • The Kilroys The List

    Listen: New List, New Leaders as the Kilroys Push for Parity

    The collective of writers and producers known as the Kilroys has been pushing for gender parity in the theater for five years now. With the launch last week of the latest edition of the List — the group’s annual round-up (inspired by Hollywood’s Black List) of plays by women, trans and non-binary writers — members [...]

  • Annette Bening

    Star-Studded Cast to Perform Live Reading of the Mueller Report

    Haven’t perused the Mueller report yet? A star-studded cast, including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, and John Lithgow, can read it to you. For one night only on Monday, June 24, stars will perform a live reading of passages from the Mueller report for “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” Robert Schenkkan’s [...]

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content