I met Charles Busch briefly after seeing “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” off Broadway 23 summers ago. The secret to his plays, he said as he got out of drag makeup and shimmering lamé gown, was to go over the top – “but just a bit.”
Queen City Theatre Company has figured out that secret, and Busch's play “Die Mommie Die!” is better for that knowledge. The actors walk a fine line between outrageousness and honesty and almost always keep their feet on the right side. I suspect Busch would tip his wig to Hank West in the title role; he vamps a little and camps a little, but he doesn't overdo his routines.
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The play itself is entirely pastiche: Some of it dates back to Sophocles, some of it to Joan Crawford movies, but all of it comes from our collective cultural consciousness. Like other Busch plays, it seems more daring than it is; for all its benevolent depravity, it's got a conventional morality at its heart. If the jokey ending comes as a shock, that's because it's as arbitrary as one of those pre-Christian plays where the gods' messengers flopped out of the sky to set everybody straight.
Despite the title, Mommie is less likely to do the dying than the killing. She's Angela Arden, a former singing star who has married egotistical Hollywood producer Sol Sussman (Joe Rux) and now wonders whether she wouldn't like to get rid of him by inserting a suppository laced with arsenic. (Oh, c'mon. If you've read this far, that reference shouldn't put you off. You'll never make it through a Busch play if you're offended by – but I'll go no further.)
Angela has birthed two monsters for whom she feels nothing. Edith (Jes Dugger) has an unhealthily clingy affection for her daddy, and temper-prone Lance (Matt Kenyon) has had few triumphs in his life, save for being cast as Ado Annie in a college version of “Oklahoma!” If Angela can feel anything, beyond the fruitless desire to revive her singing career, it may be for failed actor Tony Parker (Steven Martin), who's willing to extend a hand wherever he finds a willing thigh of either gender.
Busch delights in confounding our expectations, whether the script makes sense or not. So alcoholic housekeeper Bootsie (Jorja Ursin), who also has a crush on Sol Sussman, talks in a hillbilly dialect and burps up unpleasant portions of the Bible – until she suddenly spouts fluent-sounding Yiddish to her boss. (Of course, Sol is a grumpy old Jew. Busch set this play in 1967, and everyone's idea of a Hollywood mogul back then was a grumpy, cigar-smoking old Jew.)
The play has a strange innocence about it, perhaps because Busch (who was 13 in 1967) set it at a time when he and the nation were about to do some unhappy growing up.
While America confronted Communism in Southeast Asia and dealt with the Civil Rights Era at home, Busch was confronting sexual stereotypes and dealing with his own preferences. “Mommie” exists in a world where “normality” is irrelevant, because everyone's loony; the only hope of happiness is to accept others' craziness as non-judgmentally as possible and embrace your own. (That seems to be the theme of a lot of Busch's plays.)
There were still rough edges to QCTC's work at Thursday's opening, but the show is almost there. Ursin's conniving housekeeper is already fully formed, and West's doe-eyed, velvet-voiced heroine is endearing even in her wonkiness.
He and director Glenn Griffin could push Angela's nervous breakdown further toward madness without going too far. But maybe they're trying to observe Busch's dictum: over the top, but just a bit.