Innocence” isn’t something you’d expect to be thinking about if you were to find yourself sitting amidst the opulent fin-desiecle passementerie that fills the sitting room of New York’s best-loved theatrical drag performer, chatting about his recent experience playing the female lead in The Maids, Jean Genet’s transvestite drama of madness, envy and murder. Yet there’s something disarmingly unguarded, something waiflike, about Charles Busch. At first, it takes you by surprise. When you’ve seen him sprawled across the velvet throws that cover a sofa in his Greenwich Village apartment, though, it gets easier to sense in the adult Busch a lithe, slight figure with corn-fed looks and a precocious adolescent’s rapidfire delivery a ghost of the awestruck eight-year-old who was taken by his father to the old Metropolitan Opera house to see Joan Sutherland perform.
“The theatre itself, the gilt on the ceiling I’d never seen anything more fantastic,” Busch recalls some 30 years later. “And then there she was, with this red hair and this pale green dress. Just huge.” He pauses. “I’ve been recreating that ever since.”
As anyone who’s been keeping up with Off-Broadway theatre for the past decade or so knows, those re-creations have taken the form of the benzedrinelaced send-ups of Hollywood and Broadway leading-lady vehicles that have made Busch famous. In them, you sense that precocious child at work. Like fiendish theatrical cross-fertilizations dreamt up by some star-struck high school chemistry whiz, the vehicles that Busch has created for himself are gleefully loony hybrids. They remind you of the screenplays being pitched by those desperate writers the beginning of Robert Altman’s The Player. Busch’s The Lady in Question? It’s Watch on the Rhine meets The Sound of Music. Psycho Beach Party? Try Gidget meets The Three Faces of Eve meets Mommie Dearest.
Yet if the mere titles of drag parodies like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom or Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium (not to mention Busch’s recent first novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis) hint at preoccupations that are anything but kid stuff, Busch’s over-the-top sensibility is clearly part of a coherent artistic vision that stems from his indelible first impression of the theatre. Now, that vision is taking Busch ever further from the satiric vehicles that made his reputation. Projects like The Maids demonstrate the actor-playwright’s growing willingness to explore new theatrical avenues, as he examines all of the possibilities not merely the comic inherent in drag.
The memory of that first trip to the opera evidently lingered in Busch’s creative imagination. The leading role in nearly all of his plays is, in fact, some kind of diva: a movie queen, a concert pianist, a cabaret chanteuse. As a result, each performance, no matter how hilarious the particulars, is ultimately about performance. Even if Busch didn’t tell you that the “Pirandellian” notion he had in mind when he first started writing roles for himself was that he’d be “just this grande dame actress appearing in a play that she didn’t quite approve of,” it’d be hard not to sense in the artful staginess of Busch’s performances that he was “playing an actress who’s playing well, whatever.”
The thing that allows Busch to get away with this “metatheatrical conceit” (Busch has appropriated the term from a recent NYU dissertation about his plays, and he uses it with the proprietary pleasure you associate with the owners of new appliances) is his remarkably thorough knowledge of film and theatre history, coupled with an uncanny knack for verbal and visual mimicry. Busch recalls being accosted by one fan who, he says, “recognized every hairstyle in Lady in Question and what movie I stole it from. And,” he adds with a yelp, “he was right!” That almost scholarly attention to detail and insistence on authenticity are what make his own parodies more than what he dismissively refers to as “spoofs of spoofs of spoofs.”
“The fun,” Busch goes on, “is in getting the tone exactly right–making it seamless.” And indeed, the ’40s and ’50s actresses who “play” Busch’s leads are eerily familiar–you sometimes have to remind yourself that you’re watching a takeoff, rather than some forgotten Stanwyck vehicle. When Irish O’Flanagan, the hard-boiled nightclub singer who gets a Wonderful Life-esque chance at redemption in Times Square Angel, grits her teeth and talks about men–“the shelf-life of a dame’s good looks is shortah than a can of chili,” she growls–you can practically count how many times she’s been around the block.
For Busch, there’s nothing wrong with blurring the line between parody and “straight” performance. “Even within a parody play,” he observes, “there are so many things you can do. You can have moments of tenderness; you can have moments of romance; you can have genuine suspense. Why waste that going for a vulgar laugh?”
Easy laughs are something Busch himself has increasingly avoided. He was especially pleased with Lady, a melodramatic thriller to which some audiences reacted with real emotion. And in Red Scare on Sunset, he gave his ’50s-movie-queen heroine Mary Dale and her best gal-pal, radio hostess Pat Pilford, a moral ambiguity some found disturbing. (The play ends with Mary “naming names” to Congress, after a brush with conniving commies who were as bad as their right-wing adversaries.) Busch dismisses as “humorless” those who found Red Scare to be “anti-left.” Indeed, his P.C. critics seem to have missed the fact that, typically for Busch, Red Scare is preoccupied more with the theatre and its conventions than it is with politics. “I’m not a political satirist at all,” Busch readily admits. “It’s not my sense of humor.” It’s no accident that the “front” used by the evil reds is a Method workshop–a device that allows Busch to take regular swipes at the thespian pretensions that threaten his own more 19th-century aesthetic. “I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and go to work,” cries one of Red Scare’s Brandowannabes. “I have so many demons needing to be released!”
Mistresses of melodrama
One of Busch’s own demons is a gnawing sense that grinding out spoofs of the silver screen won’t satisfy him forever. That fear of artistic “emptiness” is what led him to Genet. Director David Esbjornson’s vision of The Maids as a contemporary fantasy of homeless people, drug addicts and pimps, is a far cry from the crinolines and divans that clutter Busch’s own dramas. But Busch wanted the challenge of something new. That’s why, when offered his pick of Genet’s three leads in the production at New York’s Classic Stage Company, he settled on Solange the “harder, more grounded” of the two maids. He wanted to experiment with paring down his usual gestures (“the body language of the diva”) to suit Solange’s proportions. “I didn’t want to do the grande dame sort of thing,” he says, when asked why he didn’t choose to play either the flashy Madame or the delusional Claire, Genet’s answer to Blanche DuBois.
Busch is disarmingly frank when describing what he felt were his shortcomings at the beginning of the Genet run. The experiment with naturalistic acting, he ventures, may have gone a bit too much against his Bernhardtesque grain. “It was not my old self,” he says flatly. As a result, he found himself during rehearsals doing “weird, self-conscious things,” like breaking up his lines in mid-sentence. (“Sandy Dennis-ish,” he quips, “without the fun.”) Busch didn’t begin to feel that he had a handle on Solange until he finally followed Esbjornson’s advice to do what he does best that is, to get metatheatrical–to “be Glenda Jackson; be Faye Dunaway as Solange,” as Esbjornson would urge him.
The Maids run sharpened Busch’s sense that his strong suit is for the larger-than-life roles suited to his models–mistresses of melodrama like Bernhardt, a special favorite. In the future, he says, it’s unlikely that he’ll essay any role in which he feels obliged to be “all tense and small.” Joan Sutherland, after all, stands nearly six feet tall.