Theater Review: ‘The Tribute Artist’

At what price a New York abode?
February 15, 2014 Updated: February 15, 2014

NEW YORK—It is generally known that New Yorkers will go to almost any lengths to acquire or hold onto a desirable apartment, but in his latest comedy, The Tribute Artist, playwright and performer Charles Busch flings that idea over the top, resulting in almost nonstop laughs.

When female impersonator Jimmy (Mr. Busch) pays a visit to his attractive landlady, Adriana (Cynthia Harris), who owns an elegant Greenwich Village town house, little does Jimmy realize that the glamorous woman is soon to depart this world. And Adriana does abruptly die, quietly in her sleep.

Who will inherit the property? More importantly, how can Jimmy hold onto it for himself?

Jimmy’s close friend Rita (Julie Halston), an enterprising real estate agent, declares that the only way to retain the house is for Adriana’s body to be hidden and for Jimmy to impersonate, and thus keep alive, Adriana.

What ensues is a series of outlandish events. Jimmy and Rita soon receive a visit from Adriana’s niece, Christina (Mary Bacon), an attractive but cranky young woman, and her teenage daughter/son, Oliver (Keira Keeley). Yes, you’ve got that right. Oliver is in the throes of experiencing a sex change from girl Rachel to boy. (Ms. Keeley does a very effective job of convincing everyone of her pronounced masculine traits.)

Not having seen Adriana for years, Christina is convinced of the authenticity of Jimmy’s portrayal of the deceased woman. However, a fly enters the ointment in the person of Rodney (Jonathan Walker), an old lover of Adriana’s.

Jimmy’s impersonation fools Rodney, at least at first. But complexities mount. Not only does Christina fall for the testosterone-laden male in their midst, but Jimmy/Adriana does also. The scene where Rodney finally makes the discovery that Jimmy is a male is too hilarious to describe and arguably too indecent to print.

But overwhelming and surpassing the ridiculous plot are the performers’ hijinks, under the control of director Carl Andress, a long-time collaborator of Mr. Busch.

As for Busch himself, enough cannot be said of this brilliant farceur, who conveys female attributes more effectively than do many women. His understanding of the female psyche and his skill in conveying minuscule, subtle emotions at every moment are unexcelled.

Furthermore, Busch’s brief impersonations of such iconic stars as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn are right on the money. If this were Japan, where great female impersonators known as onnagata are honored as “national treasures,” surely Charles Busch would receive such an honor.

Cynthia Harris’s Adriana is vibrant and strong, her performance enhanced by luscious costumes by Gregory Gale. He has clothed Busch in similarly gorgeous gowns, as well as creating highly attractive outfits for all the cast.

Julie Halston, a regular sidekick for Busch in several of his projects, displays razor-sharp timing and a piercing cynicism that’s perfect for the wise-cracking Rita.

Mary Bacon displays a neat ability to do a 180-degree turnabout in Christina’s emotional arsenal, as she travels from boredom to lust for the attractive male Rodney.

Likewise, Jonathan Walker’s Rodney also runs the gamut of emotions, ultimately erupting in a fit of rage when he senses injustices heaped upon him.

Last, but not least, Keira Keeley is most appealing as the recently hatched boy, Oliver. Watch for his curtain call.

Anna Louizos is responsible for the elegant set (more reminiscent of Manhattan’s Upper East Side than the Village in my opinion, but a pleasure to view, in any case), aided and abetted by Kirk Bookman’s lighting. In a production of this sort, wig designer Katherine Carr deserves kudos for her delightful contributions.

This rowdy and rollicking world premiere comedy, commissioned by Primary Stages, is sure to delight even the most blasé theatergoer.

The Tribute Artist
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit primarystages.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Closes: March 16

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Milennium, an arts publication. For information: diabarth@juno.com.

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