George Takei Is Sexually Versatile!
By Michael Musto
WHEN BUSCH COMES TO SHOVE
Kindly fasten your intergalactic seatbelts for my Charles Busch interview, which I assure you is a real trip, complete with amenities. From Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to his most recent cabaret act, the sardonically witty Busch has always been tons of fun in a dress. And The Tribute Artist, the new play he’s written and stars in for Primary Stages, sounds like as comfortable a fit as that nun’s habit and set of fake lashes was several shows ago.
In a phoner, Busch explained to me that Jimmy, his character in the play, has been fired from a Vegas drag revue because his Bette Davis impression doesn’t quite fit in with all the Rihannas and Beyonces prancing around him. When his elderly landlady dies, Jimmy finds his best impression of all—assuming her identity. “It’s a cross between Some Like It Hot and Arsenic and Old Lace,” said Busch, “which won’t mean anything to anyone under 60. Maybe a touch of Weekend at Bernie’s, but that’s only good for somebody under 50,” he added, laughing. And a hint of Charley’s Aunt too, but with some much needed gayness. “I thought, ‘What do I have to offer to the story that hasn’t been done before?’,” mused the author/actor. “It’s always about a heterosexual guy and what a struggle it is for him to pose as a woman and pull it off. There’s always an element of homosexual panic—what if the straight guy’s attracted to him as a woman? But the twist for me is that I play a professional female impersonator—I do it well from the start and could convince people. And with the character being gay, what if he was really attracted to the straight guy? What complications could ensue from that? The result is a very sexy play that becomes a bit of an erotic rondelay.”
It’s also different for Busch in that he usually plays women, not people pretending to be women. But to restore some sense of the familiar, his longtime costar, the hilarious Julie Halston, is aboard as the character’s best friend. “Julie’s always my Ethel Mertz,” said Busch, who never needs soft focus like Lucy in Mame.
Busch has had a whole other bosom buddy lately in musical director Tom Judson, who’s a talented musician and happens to be an ex-porn actor too. (He was Gus Mattox, the star of immortal films like Big Rig and Brooklyn Meat Company). “Two years ago,” Busch explained, “I got this call from RSVP gay cruise, asking me to do an act, with three weeks notice. I guess Idina Menzel had passed or something. I said, ‘I don’t have an act.’ Then they said how much they were paying and I thought, ‘I’ll get my act together, honey!’ I was thinking who’d be fun to be a musical director and be on a cruise with. I thought my friend Tom Judson would add a gravitas to the act. When we’d be walking down the Lido deck, I felt like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Now I’ll never hire someone who wasn‘t under contract to Chi Chi LaRue!”
Busch can probably traipse around cruises with sex gods on his arm even more now that he’s utterly single. He and author Eric Myers (Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis) never lived together, but they were a couple for over 20 years and one of New York’s most reliable twosomes. “We decided we were better as friends,” said Busch. “It was not a traumatic thing, it was an evolution. I was afraid we were about to turn into characters in a Mart Crowley play, and I’d rather be glittery divorcees in a Lubitsch comedy.” Once again, his references won’t mean anything to anyone with an IQ under 60.
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Machinal | Photo by Joan Marcus
TENNIS TAKES MORE THAN JUST BALLS
As long as we’re dabbling in the fertile past, let’s beam ourselves there for a couple of plays that underscore how fresh nostalgia can be when served in the proper basket. She Is King is creator/star Laryssa Husiak’s fascinating glimpse at ‘70s tennis champ Billie Jean King, who pioneered new avenues for women in sports with her talent, smarts, and chutzpah. The piece—at Incubator Arts Project—recreates three TV interviews King did and revels in the articulateness with which she expressed a desire to dissolve words like “feminine” and “masculine” and instead celebrate what makes individuals tick and flourish. Husiak is personable and deft as King, and Joshua William Gelb and Louisa Bradshaw are wryly funny as the alternately patronizing and compassionate interviewers. The final Q&A comes after King has been outed by ex-girlfriend Marilyn Barnett in a 1981 palimony suit that rocked the sports world and caused King to lose all her endorsements. Interviewed (by Barbara Walters) with her then-husband, King cagily says she doesn’t feel like a homosexual, but she would never put such people down since she’s always been a believer in rights and expression. Remaining relatively noncommittal yet positive, she asserts that she made a mistake in having an extramarital affair, but if the revelation helps those living in the shadows, it’s for the good. The air is tinged with the more open admissions that came later, but this piece doesn’t go for the obvious, and it’s fleshed out with video screens, a silent chorus of adolescents, choreographed segments, and other avant-garde touches that remove it from the too-literal. Pardon my mixed metaphors here, but the result is a home run.
Meanwhile, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal—currently being revived on Broadway—is a 1929 play about the darker side of women’s lib. The play is based on the real-life case of a woman who married her boss, then found life insufferable and killed him to set herself free. (Her hot, new lover and the husband’s sizeable insurance policy just might have been factors too, lol.) The expressionistic 1929 drama has the tortured character—well played by Rebecca Hall, especially in one spiraling monologue—driven mad by a deadening job, that hideous marriage, and a manipulative mother, generously murdering hubby because simply divorcing him would have hurt his feelings! Treadwell’s staccato, mannered dialogue is fascinating, and it’s presented here in a strikingly designed production (sets by Es Devlin) that evokes the way the period’s oppression of women occasionally led to an illegal catharsis that backfired. There’s also a flamboyant older gay character in a bar, trying to seduce a young man with talk of wine and love—and the scene was in the original! Maybe the 1920s were more, I don’t know, versatile than I’d imagined.