If everything in the new Charles Busch spoof came off as amusingly as Busch's pronunciation of the word "amusing"--which escapes his lipsticked puss sounding like "aMYOOzshing," Greer Garson with a Dolores Gray chaser--"Die! Mommy! Die!" would be very nearly illegally entertaining.
As is, it's entertaining. Primarily it's an excuse to see a peerless performer in action, as well as in a series of smart frocks, including one really snazzy funeral dress.
Here we are, post-"Torch Song Trilogy," post-"Angels in America," post-a lot of things. Camp and drag and various intersections thereof have become well and truly mainstreamed, and some of us are feeling a little camped-out. Yet Busch's particular wiles, ways and means in this wig or that remain remarkably diverting. He is reason enough to see this show, even as the self-tailored material bunches up around him.
Now at the Coast Playhouse, "Die! Mommy! Die!" carries the subtitle "The Fall of the House of Sussman," which tells you something about Busch's parodic range. This outing mix-masters Sophocles' "Elektra" with the lurid aesthetic of mid-1960s British horror pictures. Busch also throws in heaps of the bitchy hagfest genre, along the lines of "Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte." And 1967, the year "Die!" is set, was also the year of "Valley of the Dolls," so there's a trippy, "mod" Hollywood element as well.
Busch plays Angela Andrews Sussman, a recording and nightclub star of the vivacious redhead variety. She's on the skids, dying for a comeback. Her venal husband, Sol Sussman (Greg Mullavey), is "a producer of classic motion pictures," whose return from Europe interrupts the affair between Angela and a louche Stephen Boyd-type stud, Tony Parker (Mark Capri, whose granite profile is ideal for this kind of thing).
Parker also has an eye and his hands on the Sussmans' Carol Lynley-style daughter, Edith (Dorie Barton), not to mention Lance (Carl Andress), the back-from-college son. Angela's husband won't grant Angela a divorce. Within this Joseph E. Levine hothouse, something's gotta spill, and it turns out to be the blood of Sol. Who hath dunit? What of the mysterious death of Angela's sister? Why does Angela flip at the mention of her sibling?
The answers arrive in Act 2, and they're not terribly fresh. Though director Kenneth Elliott, a longtime Busch collaborator, keeps "Die!" spinning as best he can, the satiric unevenness can't be disguised. And the supporting cast disappoints. Mullavey, Barton, Andress and Wendy Worthington (in what they used to call a "demanding dual role," the maid and her Dogpatch-brand sister) strain for a grip on the deadpan style required. Only Capri's gigolo exists fully in the world inhabited, and effortlessly dominated, by Busch.
Thanks to the star's pert subtleties, Angela is a leading lady of near-psychotic poise. One minute she's throwing a pair of scissors at her daughter, with near-fatal accuracy; the next, she's back to acting the perfect hostess, juggling her various split personalities with the finesse of a long-lost Flying Karamazov sister.
All Busch heroines boast endlessly subdividing psyches, beginning with his early romps "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Psycho Beach Party" to the more recent, comically nuanced "Lady in Question" and "Red Scare on Sunset." (Busch is in town making a film version of "Psycho Beach Party.") In "Die!" the climactic revelations, revealing what's underneath the heroine's party-ready style, don't arrive with any particular zing; they play like hands this writer-performer has played better in the past.
So it's not a sustained hoot; an intermittent one is not nothing. Busch's drag transcends drag, and if that sounds unbelievable, as one 1967 character says here, "I believe that like I believe Cher's gonna be around in the year 2000."
* "Die! Mommmy! Die!", Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 and 10 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $25. (323) 660-TKTS; tickets also available at the Coast Playhouse box office. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Die! Mommy! Die! Dorie Barton: Edith Sussman, Verna Carp
Wendy Worthington: Bootsie Carp
Mark Capri: Tony Parker
Charles Busch: Angela Andrews Sussman
Greg Mullavey: Sol Sussman
Carl Andress: Lance Sussman
Written by Charles Busch. Directed by Kenneth Elliott. Set by B.T. Whitehill. Costumes by Dione H. Lebhar. Busch's costumes by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. Lighting by Vivien Leone. Sound and original music by Jeremy Grody. Casting by Scott Genkinger, C.S.A. Stage manager Kevin Carroll.