By Robert Heide
The melodrama play by the prolific writer, actor, director, novelist and super-drag performer and cabaret star Charles Busch produced by the production group known as Primary Stages entitled The Confession of Lily Dare stars Busch in the title role as Lily Dare. Primary Stages has presented many new interesting plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre at 38 Commerce Street and elsewhere. Founded by Casey Childs, the Primary Artistic Director is Andrew Leynse, and Shane D. Hudson is credited as Executive Director. The original production was first tried out and produced off-off Broadway in 2018 at Crystal Field’s Theater for the New City in the East Village. For the off Broadway production Busch has refined the work into a sharp-edged diamond production bringing in the costume designer Rachel Townsend who has created incredible sparkle-plenty costumes as well as over-the-top exaggerated high piled-up wigs designed by Katherine Carr. Jessica Jahn has designed special ‘Lily Dare’ costumes just for Mr. Busch, who runs the gambit in this parody of early 1930’s pre-code Hollywood tear-jerker movies such as Madame X (1929 with Ruth Chatterton) and The Sin of Madelon Claudet which starred a young, starry-eyed Helen Hayes in 1931.
The high – camp – low – camp – up – and – down-story and career of the flame-haired Lily Dare is first introduced as a shy but ambitious convent girl who transforms herself with the aid of entrepreneur Blackie Lambert (brilliantly enacted by Howard McGillen). The artful set design by B. T. Whitehill includes a background replica created with red-twinkly-lights of the Golden Gate Bridge. The lighting design expertly lends a dreamy cinematic effect to the play wherein Lily Dare first stars as a cabaret chanteuse and later runs a bordello where she becomes known as San Francisco’s most notorious madame. There are many zany, hilarious one-liners in this work that in some cases are followed by low-level hitting below-the-belt punches. Busch does not hold back steam when his character openly shouts out foul-mouthed gut-wrenching sex talk. Explicit expletives abound and they are uproarious. Yes, there are super sad moments that I found very touching and expertly brought home by Busch, such as the down-on-her-luck tragic heroine when she sings the plaintive song It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town (“The roof is so slanty it touches the ground – Just a tumble-down shack by an old railroad track – In my shanty in Old Shanty Town.”) As Lily sang this ditty I noticed a young audience member wiping away a tear with a dainty white hankie.
The new Busch work certainly joins the performer/playwright’s other camp classics among those I’ve seen over the years. Among my favorites are Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Lady in Question, Shanghai Moon, Red Scare on Sunset, Psycho Beach Party, Die Mommie, die!, and his Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Attending a play at the Cherry Lane Theatre is always special. Run by the dynamic actress/producer Angelina Fiordellisi since 1996 this theater is what Greenwich Village was all about in the early Bohemian days. Of writers and artists there I saw many of my playwright friends’ plays produced including Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, and Joe Orton. One must add Gertrude Stein and T. S. Elliot to this list, and my own plays Moon and At War With the Mongols on a double bill first done there fifty years ago. Otto Preminger, the filmmaker, was one of the producers and it featured the television sit-com star Elaine B. Shore.
Back in 1964 the writer Susan Sontag wrote an important essay in the Partisan Review, Notes on Camp, which brought the word ‘camp’ into play along with the ‘theatre of the absurd,’ a term used to describe many of the ‘new’ plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, and others. In Sontag’s essay she calls camp “A sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony and exaggeration rather than content.” I might add there is such a thing as High Camp and with that in mind I would say that The Confession of Lily Dare is a prime example as well as an outright laugh riot. I should add that the supporting cast, as well as Charles Busch in the lead, are ‘the tops.’ They include Nancy Anderson, Christopher Borg, Kendal Sparks, Jennifer Van Dyck and Howard McGillan. The whole shebang was directed brilliantly by Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress. The play ends with the music—San Francisco, Open your Golden Gate, and I Left My Heart in San Francisco—and is a real love letter to that West Coast city.
Mr. Busch resides in an Art Deco apartment building in Greenwich Village across from Abingdon Square.