February 4, 2009

The Siren Song of "The Third Story"

I’m not usually big on drag and I’m often uncomfortable with camp. So I would hardly seem to be the best candidate for a Charles Busch show. But what prompted me to see this cross-dressing master’s latest creation, The Third Story, which opened in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Monday night, is that its cast includes that authentic femme fatale Kathleen Turner.

Turner has been a favorite of mine since her breakthrough as the seductress in the 1981 movie “Body Heat” and I’ve grown even more fond of her over the years as, unlike so many movie stars, she’s aged the way real women I know age — a little heavier, a little wrinklier but without sacrificing any innate sexiness. I’ve also appreciated how, like so many of us Boomers, she has continued to take on, and triumph in, more challenging roles — in her case, Martha in the sensational 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So imagine my surprise when Turner turned out to be my least favorite part of the entertaining, and at times moving, evening that The Third Story was for me. Although I’m not sure I would have felt the same way about the play if I hadn’t listened to the podcast of a Playbill Radio interview with Busch the morning before I saw the show.

My ninth grade English teacher always insisted that you don’t need to know anything personal about an author to appreciate his or her work. But in this case I think Miss Pillsbury was wrong. Busch’s honest and insightful discussion about how his work has been influenced by the lost of his mother when he was seven, watching old movies with his dad as a boy and discovering Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous when he was in college gave me a deeper appreciation of both the man and his work. (Click here if you’d like to listen to the interview).

The Third Story uses all of Busch’s now-familiar tropes. There are actually three interconnected stories—each has a different style but all three deal with parent-child relationships and the transformative power of storytelling. And two feature Busch playing female characters.
Even at 54, Busch, dressed in Gregory Gale’s swanky ‘40s-style costumes, still makes a good-looking gal. But while many of the laughs are derived from the broad campy humor of having a man play a woman, his performance is also, at times, delicately nuanced.

Turner also hits a few poignant notes but she doesn’t really seem comfortable in either of her roles as a formerly successful screenwriter trying to persuade her grown son (nicely played by Jonathan Walker) to collaborate on a new script that will revive her career or as a mad scientist (don’t ask, you gotta see it to get it and I haven’t even mentioned the third storyline about the Russian witch and the enchanted princess).

The rest of the cast—particularly Scott Parkinson as the most peculiar of the characters and Jennifer Van Dyck as the most straitlaced—is impressively versatile as many of them play multiple roles, and seemingly tireless as some fast-change from costume to costume . Director Carl Andress, aided by set designer David Gallo, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer Chris Luessmann, gives each of the stories its own distinctive and yet harmonious tone.

I saw the show with my friend Jesse, an old Ludlam fan, who said The Third Story wasn’t as zany as his Ridiculous Theatrical Company used to be but she still laughed a lot. I laughed too. But as a mama’s girl, my heart also ached a bit for the little boy beneath the crinoline slip who so obviously still misses his mother.

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