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.”
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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.