What is undeniably Charles Busch’s most psychologically complex play is also his most outrageously convoluted. “The Third Story” certainly has its quota of laughs and it offers, under the guidance of director Carl Andress, the kind of giddily grandiose performance(s) that the playwright/star’s fan base will undoubtedly adore. However, this play, in which Busch plays three roles, one of which is a skewed clone of the other (but more about that later) also reaches beyond the fashionably outre to investigate the diversionary journey of Drew (Jonathan Walker), a desultory adult male as he struggles for emotional and artistic dependence from Peg (Kathleen Turner), the alcoholic, possessive, has-been mother with whom he once shared a writing career.
Famously fixated with Hollywood legendry and the more dominant female icons of the golden age of film-making, notably those of the 1930s and ’40s, Busch, in his latest opus, is not channeling the likes of Crawford, Stanwyck, or Davis, but rather existing as a living repository of all their most identifiable traits, postures, and expressions. These have all been extracted and absorbed into a crazy quilt that is far more ambitious in scope than such past drag-immersed works as “The Lady in Question,” “Red Scare on Sunset,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and “Psycho Beach Party.”
The Tony-nominated Busch (as author of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”) can be lauded again for writing a play in which displaced, disfigured, and distressed personalities vie for attention and resolution in their lives. Simply put: Psychological profundity meets psychopathic lunacy. Now whether his aim and ambition have been translated into a good play is the fourth story. It remains in question.
Notwithstanding the high-styled wig, a collection of handsome ensembles and stunning gowns, and a witch’s schmata, Busch’s extravagant theatrical personas and fictional characters in the play within the play allow room for two poignant characters to emerge. As played with mushy-mouthed invectives by Turner, Peg is a washed-up screenwriter who once hob-knobbed with such female screenwriting luminaries as Frances Marion, June Mathis, and Anita Loos. She is hoping to convince Drew to collaborate with her in developing a scenario for a gangster flick she hopes to market. Maybe by the third try, the story will gel, as will their fractured relationship.
Ensconced in the home outside Omaha, Nebraska, where he lives alone and works as a mailman, Drew resists his mother’s attempt to lure him back to writing and expedite her comeback. He is content, as he says, being a mailman. Mother thinks she knows best and proceeds to entice Drew with her loopy and ludicrous ideas for a plot. These also spark a trio of comically dramatized scenarios that imaginatively interpolate various genres, including science fiction, horror, fairy tales, gangster/mob movies, and pure melodrama, all of it woven into the fabric of the main story.
Four of the play’s six actors are playing more than one role, making it somewhat of a four-de-force. Busch makes an atypical fashion statement as the fabled witch, Baba Yaga, who helps a princess gain the love of a prince. But he is at his best as the tough-talking mob boss Queenie Bartlett and as her discombobulated robotic clone. The clone, like the humorously afflicted zombie Zygote (as played by the gruesomely made-up Scott Parkinson) is the flawed product of Dr. Constance Hudson, a demented scientist. Dr. Hudson is played with an impassioned brio by Jennifer Van Dyck (a Princeton native and graduate of Princeton High School), who has the hots for Queenie’s smart aleck son, Steve. Jonathan Walker gets high marks impressively contrasting his double assignment as Steve and also as the conflicted Drew. Sarah Rafferty is demure as the forest princess and then appears wonderfully sexy and sassy as Verna, Steve’s former girlfriend. Let it be said that Turner’s turn as the German-accented scientist, Dr. Rutenspitz manages to create a genre of its own.
“The Third Story” was (according to the author’s notes in the program) inspired by Busch’s own memories of a beloved storytelling aunt. It is a commendably daring exploration of the silver chord syndrome and the agony of the creative process. The significance of the title becomes evident at the play’s conclusion. The significance of the play may reside in Drew’s retort to Peg: “I’ll concede that you weren’t any worse a parent than others of your ilk.” **
“The Third Story,” through Friday, February 27. Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street. $65. 212-279-4200.