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NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT CHARLES BUSCH BRINGS HIS EXTRAVAGANT TALENTS TO L.A. FOR FILM ROLE AND 'ALLERGIST'S WIFE'.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

THE WARDROBE is pure Melrose, down to the black pork-pie hat that covers Charles Busch's shaved head.

The fingernails are long, and Busch, noticing me staring, explains he needs the claws for a movie. On this, his day off from the film set, Busch has left his trademark frocks, wigs and boas elsewhere. There may be a slightly nervous cadence to his voice, but Busch is clearly ready for his close-up.

You suspect Charles Busch is always ready for his close-up.

``He's terrific, he'll do anything, the camera loves him and he loves the camera. That's for sure,'' says Mark Rucker, who is directing Busch in his first leading leading-man ... er ... lady film role, the screen adaptation of Busch's play ``Die! Mommy! Die!'' ``To me, so much of Charles' acting styles come from all the great leading ladies of the silver screen,'' Rucker says.

``I've been obsessed with movies all my life,'' agrees Busch, 47, ``so this is like the Holy Grail.''

An obsession with the movies? Marjorie Taub would sneer until her eyes bugged out of her head.

Taub is the affected and addled Upper West Side matron of ``The Tale of the Allergist's Wife,'' Busch's hit play that opens its national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre tonight.

``It's kind of nutty to be making this movie at the same time the play is about to open here,'' says Busch. ``Originally, I thought I was going to be here to support the play and sort of be present at whatever few rehearsals they're doing in L.A., but there's not much function for me.''

That's a pretty unusual statement considering Busch's plays seldom function without him.

Six years ago, within a multiple-character solo show called ``Flipping My Wig,'' Busch created - and played - a raging Upper West Side housewife with a lot on her mind. It was a six-minute sketch, but it was, Busch said, ``kind of like the best six minutes of my career.''

That character evolved into Marjorie Taub (played at the Ahmanson by Valerie Harper), a society maven who looks for intellectual fulfillment and finds it when a long-lost friend (played by Michele Lee) re-enters her life.

Key characters in the play were pulled from or inspired by people from Busch's family. But not his heroine.

``I am Marjorie,'' says Busch. ``I identify with her frustrations and what she perceives are her limitations. Being a comic writer, part of me wishes I could write a completely incomprehensible play that is so undeniably intellectual that everybody would be so bored to tears, but they'd be compelled to sit through it.''

Except this time he decided he would not be Marjorie.

Even though he frequently takes on larger-than-life drag roles in his plays (``Psycho Beach Party'' and ``Vampire Lesbians of Sodom''), Busch elected to write Marjorie for somebody else. In fact, he considered it a challenge to create a meaty role for a middle-age woman, a real woman.

``When I play a female character, yes, there's a real grounded emotional truth to it,'' says Busch, whose screen roles have included a small part in ``Addams Family Values'' and a Death Row inmate dying of AIDS on ``Oz.'' ``There's also an extra layer to it. I'm sort of commenting on the history of star acting. There's really no reason for me to play Blanche DuBois. Some real lady will do that better.''

That lady turned out to be Linda Lavin (of TV's ``Alice''), whom Busch had seen in the one-act collection ``Death Defying Acts.'' An initially reluctant Lavin was ultimately convinced to take on Marjorie's neuroses (``I had to stalk her,'' says Busch), and the actress went on to earn a Tony Award nomination. Harper took over from Lavin on Broadway and will repeat the role at the Ahmanson, along with fellow Broadway cast members Lee, Tony Roberts, and Shirl Bernheim.

Finding a venue for ``Allergist's Wife'' was comparatively easy. Busch had written a musical, ``The Greet Heart'' for the Manhattan Theatre Club, and the company's artistic director, Lynne Meadow, agreed to produce his next play.

Meadow, who also directs ``Allergist's Wife,'' didn't especially know from the drag diva, outre Busch, the man who in one play cooked up a murder plot involving a poisoned suppository. ``I'm an expert in the 'new' Charles Busch,'' says Meadow.

``He's a terrific comic writer. We've known that for years,'' she continues. ``But he's really shown himself to have a tremendous depth and humanity. He has the ability to see our foibles and poke fun at us, but he also has such a wonderful heart.''

Predictably, New Yorkers went nuts over the play, but neither Busch not Meadow consider the humor to be too upper-crust East Coast to alienate audiences on the road.

``I really do believe the more specific you are, the more universal you are,'' says Busch. ``We're always getting responses from people of different ethnic backgrounds. I guess every ethnic group has daughters who have trouble with their mothers and husbands who are oblivious.''

``Allergist's Wife,'' which is still running on Broadway, even survived Broadway's post-Sept. 11 malaise, rebounding stronger than ever. Busch chalks up much of his play's post-9/11 resurgence to the presence of Harper, who made an effort to connect with her audiences that went beyond the demands of her role.

``She threw herself so totally into this whole kind of reclamation of New York and Broadway,'' says Busch. ``She gave a curtain speech every single night through the end of her run thanking the audience for supporting the theater and New York City. Julia Roberts may be the bigger movie star, but Valerie was a real comfort to pop culture.

``My theory is there's a comfort thing,'' he continues. ``Audiences think, 'Oh, it's Valerie in this New York comedy. We know what to expect. This is going to be fun.' ''

Once he wraps up ``Die! Mommy! Die!'' - which co-stars Philip Baker Hall, Natasha Lyonne and Jason Priestley - Busch returns to New York to star in his play ``Shanghai Moon'' ofroadway for the Drama Department. He's writing a new play about a theater summer camp that he expects to be produced at the MTC. In 2003, Busch is back in L.A. to do some additional work on his version of ``The House of Flowers,'' a musical by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen. The musical will be produced by the Pasadena Playhouse.

``I recently wrote and directed a short-subject film for Showtime as part of their 'Quick Flick' series,'' he says. ``I just got so hooked. Now I know how Streisand feels.''

THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, some Sunday evening performances; through Aug. 11.

Tickets: $20 to $60. Call (213) 628-2772.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) - Charles Busch

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer

(2) no caption (Valerie Harper)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 26, 2002
Words:1158
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