Review by Edward Rubin, member of American Theatre Critics Association, NYC’s Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle; photo by Carol Rosegg
In or out of drag, whether on stage or page, the 65-year-old actor-playwright Charles Busch, with some forty years of show business under his belt, is a force to be reckoned with. His signature calling card is in his all-over inventiveness, his humorous tongue-in-cheek playfulness, looking outrageously spectacular in a gown and wig, and most importantly, a straight forward honesty in everything he touches. In short, Busch is entirely believable even when he is not.
The Confession of Lily Dare, Busch’s latest outing, as both playwright and lead actor, currently packing them in at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City through Thursday, March 5th, is a humorous, fast-paced dish of delicious camp, a perfect antidote to calm one down in this age of anxiety. I won’t even mention the Coronavirus threat or the upcoming Presidential election. I leave these downers to the media who relish in such times as this.
Confession opens and closes – the year is 1950 – at Lily Dare’s graveside with prostitute Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and Mickey (Kendal Sparks) paying respects to their life-long friend. Told in flashbacks, Confessions traces the vertiginous rise and fall of Lily Dare channeled by Charles Busch in the melodramatic style of Hollywood’s early pre-code films of the late thirties.
Many of these early films were peopled by women, both fallen and not, who, in dire straits—most often because of a man—were forced to give their children up for adoption or turn to the streets for a living. Lily Dare, with talent to spare and luck mostly on her side (until it is not), is one of these larger than life women.
Confession, with more plot undulations than a snake on LSD, casts an unblinking eye on the innocent sixteen-year-old Lily, festooned with a million fabulous costumes (Jessica Jahn) and wigs (Katharine Karr), being kicked out of a Swiss convent after her mother is killed in an avalanche, finding a home in San Francisco at her Aunt Rosalie’s (Jennifer Van Dyke) bordello, and becoming a popular cabaret performer until she loses her voice. “Pirate Joe,” the big show-stopping number, has Busch conjuring up nostalgic memories of Dietrich. (I could just see him—if only!—coming downstage and singing Falling In Love Again.)
Further gilding his Lily, we follow the character’s higgledy-piggledy trajectory as an unwed mother who puts her daughter Louise (Nancy Anderson) up for adoption and an owner of a string of highly successful money-making brothels, who ends up in jail taking the rap for Blackie (Howard McGillin) over the theft of diamond earrings. Of course, as the man that done her wrong, he gets his comeuppance, this by the murderous hand of a vengeful Lily.
As far as the mixture of Lily Dare’s acting styles employed by Busch in this play, he begins by donning the innocent demeanor of silent film stars Mary Pickford or the Gish sisters, and then, as Lily continues to age over time, jumps right into emulating the highly stylized walk, talk, and facial expressions of yesteryear’s cinema queens of camp, Mae West and Joan Crawford.
While the ensemble cast, most playing several roles, are simply wonderful, it is Jennifer Van Dyke, solidly inhabiting each of her four extremely diverse scene-stealing characters, who runs away with the show. Her crowning moment is as Lily’s grown-up opera-singing daughter Louise. Her Van Dyke lip-syncing “Siempre libera,” Violetta’s aria from La Traviata,” brought the house down. The brilliance of this scene alone, which all but brought the audience to their feet, is worth the price of admission alone.
Cast: Nancy Anderson (Emmy Lou), Christopher Borg (Louis, The Baron, Dr Carlton, Maestro Guardi, Priest), Charles Busch (Lily Dare) Howard McGillin (Blackie Lambert), Kendall Sparks (Mickey/Piano), Jennifer Van Dyke (The Baroness, Mrs. Carlton, Louise)
Technical: Scenic Design: Brian T. Whitehill, Costume Design for Charles Busch (Jessica Jahn), Costume Design for the cast: Rachel Townsend, Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman, Sound Design: Bart Fasbender, Wig Design: Katherine Carr.
The Confession Of Lily Dare opened on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 in New York City at the Cherry Lane Theatre 38 Commerce Street. It closes on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Written by Charles Busch and Directed by Carl Andress. Running Time is 2 hours with one intermission. For more information, or to buy tickets click on primarystages.org or call 866-811-4111