No one has perfected the art of mincing quite like Charles Busch has. The Tribute Artist, a new comedy written by and starring the Off-Broadway star, has much to offer fans of drag, farce, and the many campy possibilities in between. Busch’s play is a recipe whose ingredients include a valuable West Village apartment, its dearly departed tenant, her penniless relatives, attempted blackmail, and of course, Charles Busch in several fabulous negligees. His resume as a drag artist who avoids the term “drag queen” is given substantial padding in this confection of gender-bending hijinks and fun.
When I say Busch has mastered mincing, I don’t mean to suggest the kind of flimsy frivolity that typically characterizes men who don women’s clothing. Such LGBTQ stereotypes are starting to feel dated in an era where gay couples can marry in Utah. Charles Busch is so comfortable in his skin, not necessarily as a woman but as a man playing a woman, his performance emanates a captivating inner strength. Katherine Carr’s wigs and Gregory Gale’s exquisite costuming certainly help, but if drag is about confidence, Busch is a flat-out virtuoso.
His supporting cast, led by long-time collaborator Julie Halston, fit nicely within the confines of this ridiculous and flamboyant world. Jonathan Walker takes his straight-man performance to hilariously deranged places, and Keira Keeley’s poignant coming-of-age arc as a transgendered teen is given welcome naturalistic touches. Mary Bacon, as the shrewish inheritor of the apartment, somehow manages to shoulder both the most dramatic and least plausible chunks of story with ease. Director Carl Andress knows how to guide this cast from punch line to punch line without overexposing each setup. Whether or not you’re familiar with the many references to old Hollywood dames Busch throws in during his chaotic final scene, Halston pointing them out one by one will not fail to delight. Nor will this diva-licious romp of a play.
By Jack Smart
The Tribute Artist is presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theater until March 16, with an opening night on Sunday, February 9.