Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?
The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose owner has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes, and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.
The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This “upper crust” lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch), a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing, and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends. They enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.
During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination: a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy. Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.
What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc, and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy. The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.
While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity, and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1990.
The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will turn out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.