Camp queen on the loose



The satirical comedy of veteran drag performer/playwright Charles Busch is either totally on-target (such as 2007’s hilarious “Die Mommy Die!” and 2000’s Broadway hit “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”) or ambitious but misses the mark, as is the case with his latest farce, “The Third Story.” This screwball tale of a has-been Hollywood screenwriter, Peg (Kathleen Turner) and her postal carrier son, Drew (Jonathan Walker), living in Omaha in 1949 and trying to write a screenplay, has many clever ideas, but nothing quite gels, and the rambling, half-baked narrative ultimately doesn’t work.

As in Busch’s “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Psycho Beach Party,” the characters in “The Third Story” take absurdity to wild levels of insanity. The booze-swilling Peg has an idea for a sci-fi, B-movie screenplay that she’s certain will cement her comeback as a Hollywood scribe. Son Drew has left Tinseltown to settle down in the heartland and wants no part of helping his mother write a script. Most of the play contains scenes from the atrocious play Peg’s writing, with characters acting them out in a twisted parallel universe. Busch attempts to stab the satirical needle into mother-son relationships, but the humor wears thin quickly.

Of course, Busch plays dual female roles, dolled up in Gregory Gale’s superbly kitschy costumes: Queenie Bartlett, a lady mobster and morphine addict who’s dying, and the evil, fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga. Busch loves to play aging camp queens that are always a cross between Susan Hayward in “Valley of the Dolls” and Joan Crawford in so many of her bad-girl roles, delivering melodramatic dialogue that could easily be lifted out of any Douglas Sirk women’s weepy. Busch’s Baba Yaga, however, is devoid of glamour; she’s simply a grotesque hag, like Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Peg’s son Drew sits in disgust as his mother works on her lame-brained screenplay. Busch, as Queenie, hooks up with a scientist, Dr. Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck). The scientist is making a clone of the female mobster to replace the real Queenie once she dies. Busch also plays Queenie’s creepily manufactured doppelganger. There’s just one problem: Dr. Hudson’s previous experiment, Zygote (Scott Parkinson), turned out to be a literal scientific mess, with seven nipples and a head that also functions as his anus (please, don’t ask).

Another of Peg’s preposterous subplots involves the witch Baba Yuga, in a make-believe Russian forest, trying to help Princess Vasalina (Sarah Rafferty) win the affections of a prince.

Carl Andress does his best to direct the cast and make Busch’s scattershot storyline flow smoothly, and that’s no easy task in a play so intentionally implausible. Kathleen Turner is marvelous as usual and as husky-voiced as ever, but her talents seem wasted on such paper-thin material. The supporting cast, namely Sarah Rafferty as Verna and Princess Vaselina, and Jennifer Van Dyck as Dr. Hudson, do a nice job of fleshing out such one-dimensional characters.

All the action on stage is certainly inventive and wonderfully far-fetched, but the convoluted, crackpot details about Peg’s play are less funny than confusing and dull. “The Third Story” might be more enjoyable if it were condensed into a succinct one act, but as a full-fledged, two-act comedy, the unfocused plot simply drags and the jokes often fail miserably.

Charles Busch has a grand time playing his usual hussy-in-peril roles, but anyone who’s seen him perform his theatrical drag routine over the years will realize both the act and his material are getting stale.