Poor Jimmy (Charles Busch). As an aging drag queen (or as he describes himself, a tribute artist) portraying entertainment legends on the Las Vegas strip he has recently been fired from his job. With no hope of suitable employment and no place to live, Jimmy’s life is one big mess. He relates his woes during a visit to long time friend, Adriana (Cynthia Harris), an elderly recluse and virtual shut-in living in a palatial townhouse in New York City. Her sudden demise at the start of the show gives Jimmy and his boozy, incompetent real estate friend, Rita (Julie Halston) a madcap idea—Jimmy could impersonate Adriana, the two could sell the home for the millions it’s worth, split the proceeds, and head out of town to a life of luxury and wealth. Since no one has really seen Adriana for such a long time and with no known heirs in the picture, the plan looks foolproof. Of course, it isn’t, as unforeseen developments conspire to derail the twosome’s scheme.
This sets the stage for The Tribute Artist, a very funny show energized by a sometimes subtle, but mostly flamboyant performance by playwright and star, Charles Busch. The impersonation of his recently departed friend reminded me of an aged Eve Arden, which is apropos since Busch, as Jimmy, can’t help himself from referencing snippets of dialogue from Hollywood films of yesteryear. He is spot on with his depictions of such luminaries as Bette Davis, Mary Astor, and Margaret Sullivan. The New York Times published a cheat sheet guide to the movie references in the play to serve as an aid to playgoers. Busch has stated he, “may have estranged some audience members who weren’t familiar with the movies he satirized” in previous productions he had written. In The Tribute Artist he smartly has the character of Rita announce the source material to cast members as part of the show’s plot. Within the context of the play it works perfectly. I also greatly appreciated how playwright Busch neatly wrapped up the loose ends by the end of the production. It made for a very satisfying conclusion.
What makes Charles Busch such an entertaining performer is not just the way he emotes and sashays about the stage, but also with his varied, comical facial expressions and schtick. The rest of the cast is equally impressive with Busch’s frequent collaborator, Julie Halston, a perfect foil. She has an expressive theatricality that helps keep the laughs coming. Cynthia Harris as Jimmy’s aged confidant, Adriana, makes the most of her time on stage with one hysterical zinger after another. Mary Bacon, as the unknown heir, Christina, initially comes off as a whiny complainer, but as the show moves along her performance becomes more layered and sympathetic. Jonathan Walker as ex-fling, Rodney, is wonderfully mysterious as well a delicious as a flirtatious lout. Keira Keeley as the young girl, Oliver, having sexual orientation questions rounds out the superb cast.
Director Carl Andress gives good pacing to the production, allowing the chuckles and laughable situations to unfold naturally. He knows when to impose his judgement and when to step back and let the actors, especially Charles Busch, just do their thing.
The Tribute Artist, one of the funniest shows On or Off-Broadway, through March 30th.