Betty Davis Thighs
2nd Story takes on Charles Busch’s hilarious gender-bending play about a fading song stylist with a plan to escape her unhappy marriage.by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
There are worse ways to go than to die laughing — even if you’re not sure why. So if you’re up for playing a little game of chance with the Grim Reaper don’t miss 2nd Story Theatre’s side-splitting and gender-bending production of Charles Busch’s slightly insane satire “Die, Mommie, Die!” running in rep with “I Hate Hamlet” this summer in Warren.
As contrived as the story may be, it still makes more sense than most of the political mumbo-jumbo spouted off by presidential hopefuls in an election year; and the Busch plot is much less malicious than the promises espoused by politicians, never mind that it involves multiple homicides and no shortage of ill will toward one’s siblings and spouses. Even so, Busch’s crazily convoluted take on the modern family provides a pleasant theatrical diversion on a hot summer night.
2nd Story’s Artistic Director Ed Shea directed the show knowing full well that the only thing sacred to playwright Busch is the profane. Consequently, Shea turned Busch’s characters into the caricatures they were meant to be by calling for over-the-top performances by the entire cast.
First and foremost there is Angela Arden, an over-the-hill chanteuse played deliciously by Payton St. James. This role was played by Busch in the original production, and I can’t imagine that Busch was any better than St. James, whose performance borders on the hysterical and simultaneously elicits a sympathetic audience response. Ron Cesario’s outrageously extravagant costumes give St. James the look and feel of some of Hollywood’s most famous leading ladies from yesteryear. Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo come to mind.
Angela is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Sol Sussman, a big-time movie producer who is well past his prime. Sol, played with a tenacious absurdity by F. William Oakes, is one of those characters you love to hate. Sol is a brutal, demanding, insensitive, suspicious, and mean-spirited husband and father; and those are his good points. Oakes performance fits the quintessential Jewish Hollywood executive to a T.
Is it any wonder that Sol’s kids are skewed far to the outer edges of the classic bell curve? Son Lance (Patrick M. Saunders), aside from being gay is an emotional wreck with less self-esteem than a common slug, and daughter, Edith (Valerie Westgate) is so caught up in daddy’s celebrity as a Hollywood big-shot that she fails to see his faults and is continuously at odds with Angela. Whether fighting, conspiring, or lamenting their fate, Westgate and Saunders team up for some of the most comical scenes in the show. Saunders’ facial expressions are priceless, and the droll Westgate’s performance is a gem.
To keep things interesting, Busch supplements the Sussman nuclear family with Bootsie Carp (Peggy Melozzi), the Sussman’s live-in maid and Sal’s on and off lover and Tony Parker (Wayne Kneeland), a failed actor and tennis pro with a wicked backhand and a willingness to stroke or poke anything that moves regardless of race, gender, or religious affiliation, a true renaissance man on the sexual front. As the only semi-sane character in the play, Melozzi provides a refreshing dose of reality in a world gone mad. Her practicality is the only thing that keeps the nuclear family from exploding.
Busch’s plot has more holes in it than a wedge of Swiss cheese, but plot in a satire is beside the point. Only the outrageous is real. The idea is to have some fun, both for the actors and the audience. And 2nd Story’s production of “Die, Mommie, Die!” certainly accomplishes that.