You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.


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.

Popular on Variety

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.


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


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.


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

More Legit

  • Broadway-Breakfast-Split

    Variety to Celebrate Second Business of Broadway Breakfast With Thomas Schumacher, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody

    Variety has announced the lineup for its second annual Business of Broadway breakfast presented by City National Bank. Joining the breakfast on Oct. 7 is the president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher, who will take part in the event’s keynote conversation. In his position, Thomas oversees the company’s worldwide stage productions, which [...]

  • Sue Wagner John Johnson

    Tony-Winning Producers Sue Wagner and John Johnson Announce New Venture, Wagner Johnson Productions

    Sue Wagner and John Johnson, seven-time Tony award-winning producers, announced Wednesday that they have embarked on a new theatrical business venture, Wagner Johnson Productions. Under the name, they will produce and general manage a wide scope of theater productions. One of Wagner Johnson Productions’ current projects is a musical rendition of “Almost Famous,” which will [...]

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content