In Relative Distress

Charles Busch’s fizzy new work, The Tribute Artist, is really light summer fare, but since it has shown up to make this brutal winter a lot cheerier for a couple of hours, who’s going to complain?

On this outing, Busch, who usually plays female characters, is Jimmy Nichols, a gay drag performer — or, as Jimmy prefers, “tribute artist”—who has been canned from his longtime job at a Las Vegas revue. The solid comedy he has constructed is rather like Charley’s Aunt for the 21st century, with nods to Arsenic and Old Lace and Weekend at Bernie’s. As usual, there are the knowing references to movies — The Mortal Storm, Gone with the Wind — and even snatches of celebrity impersonations, among them Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, and inevitably, Bette Davis. (Busch fans know he is genuinely an expert on old movies; he even provided commentary on Warner Bros. DVD release of Davis’s Dead Ringer.)

Jimmy and his lesbian best friend, Rita, (played by the estimable Julie Halston, a comic crony for many years), are visiting Adriana (Cynthia Harris), an elegant but snobbish and sarcastic older woman who for several years has let Jimmy rent a room in her sumptuous Greenwich Village townhouse (gorgeously designed by Anita Louizos). Bereft of friends or family, Adriana foresees an imminent demise. The three drink themselves into a festive stupor, and the next morning Adriana has passed away. Suddenly Jimmy and Rita, aka “the worst real estate agent in New York,” have a multimillion-dollar townhouse on their hands with no heirs in sight. Why couldn’t Jimmy impersonate Adriana till the townhouse can be sold? After all, the old woman didn’t have any family.

It’s to be expected that flies will appear in the ointment, and in great quantities. A real heir, Christina, a sad sack of a woman but a favorite niece of Adriana’s late husband Lou, arrives to exert her claim to the townhouse. Unfortunately for Jimmy, Christina has only sour memories of Aunt Adriana. And Christina has brought her son, Oliver, a transgender teen.

Oliver immediately bonds with his “great-aunt” and determines to stay the summer in New York with her, prompting the frustrated Christina to do the same. Worse, the well-meaning Oliver tracks down Adriana’s long-lost love, Rodney Ash. Nowadays, though, Rodney is a thug who’s involved in selling body parts on the black market and claims to have been abused throughout his life: whether it’s by Romanians or drug pushers, every instance involves him being “stripped naked,” and Jonathan Walker as Rodney keeps the joke fresh through several scenarios.

Busch has written juicy parts for all his cast, and under Carl Andress’s direction, they are terrific. Mary Bacon is a bitter, self-lacerating Christina, gradually loosening up and finding she likes the aunt she despised from afar throughout her life — but she also likes Auntie’s boyfriend. Keira Keeley as Oliver is expertly tomboyish and androgynous, as well as the least self-delusional character on stage. Walker imbues Rodney with macho vigor and unabashed menace, as he discovers household secrets and resorts to blackmail to secure the townhouse millions himself. And theater stalwart Cynthia Harris (an artistic director of The Actors Company Theatre several blocks away in midtown) makes the most of her early scene as Adriana, balancing largesse with disdain, hauteur with chumminess.

Busch dispenses the jokes freely. Christina, confessing to Rita her attraction to Rodney, says, “There’s something vulnerable about him.” Halston, with her punchy, nasal delivery, gives Rita's response: “You see vulnerable. I see shifty.” But there are also subtle moments, when the joke creeps up unexpectedly. Here’s Rita, talking about another townhouse for sale: “the place had no pizazz, no je ne sais quoi and no moldings.” 

Busch himself is, of course, a delight to watch. With equal aplomb, he lusts after Rodney and trades quips with Rita, while tossing off name-dropping jokes and bitchy humor. The Vegas revue, he tells Adriana and Rita, had cut most of his roles: “Finally, I was just left with Marilyn. She is my masterpiece, but most of that Vegas crowd just think I’m doing Christina Aguilera.” This show may have been created as a vehicle for its star, but audiences will want to take it for a spin.

The Tribute Artist runs through March 29, with evening performances at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are on Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $70 and may be purchased at www.primarystages.org. 

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