Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Third Story


By Charles Busch. Directed by Carl Andress. MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. (CLOSED)

High expectations may have set up Charles Busch's ambitious new genre- and gender-hopping romp for a fall, as many critics expected sparks to fly between the creator of Die, Mommy, Die! and certified diva Kathleen Turner. In the play's complicated three-layered structure, though, Turner plays a Midwestern screenwriter trying to make peace with her son by co-writing stories--in which Busch appears in various fantastic guises. Some loyal Busch fans warmed to the effort despite quibbles, but several other critics were openly disappointed. Meme watch: The word "crazy quilt" appeared in two (favorable) reviews.

Hartford Courant A
The actor-playwright Charles Busch has created an ingenious, laugh-packed jumble in "The Third Story," in which he doubles as "the undisputed first lady of crime" and a kindly old witch...Turner, who has become a queen of the New York stage, as an actor and director, proves a fine partner for Busch. She exhibits expert comic timing, and a persuasive realism as Peg, neatly pairing with Walker, who transforms himself instantly from the laid-back Drew into the hard-boiled, if claustrophobic Steve. As always in the drag roles he writes for himself, Busch is a pleasure to watch...But all six actors shine under the sharp direction of Andress..."The Third Story" proves a treat and throbs with heart as well.

Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) This is rich food; not surprisingly, palates accustomed to the thin gruel that today's theater too often serves up have grimaced at it. It's also, let's face the fact, hearty peasant cuisine—a thick stew, the chewy ingredients and peppery flavor of which may not appeal to fastidious tastes. Nor is it dished up with much elegance...The cast's likability partly makes up for these shortfalls...The main joy of The Third Story is that its foolery embodies something substantive, making its occasional unevenness easy to bear. Like that good peasant food, it sticks to your ribs. Jung says somewhere that the psychic "work" accomplished by myths and fairy tales doesn't occur on the story's realistic, psychological, or allegorical level; it's in the energy created as our minds move among the three. No wonder The Third Story feels like such an energizing event.

Bloomberg News A-
(Jeremy Gerard) ) The result is a romp with all the expected Busch ingredients: plenty of campy humor, double and triple entendres, the playwright doubling in two drag roles. As a blowsy '40s screenwriter facing obsolescence with a wink and a tumbler or four of bourbon, Turner adds earthy humor, sensational style and an undercurrent of poignancy...Under Carl Andress’s confident ringmaster direction, the excesses, fortunately and endearingly, are reserved for the actors...It’s silly to complain that the writing, too, is excessive; with Busch it’s in for a dime, in for a dollar. Carving 20 minutes from the running time would probably help, but in truth I wasn’t counting.

CurtainUp B+
(Simon Saltzman) 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...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.

Theatermania B+
(Sandy MacDonald) Even if not every element of this complex play quite holds together, this is one inventive crazy-quilt...Turner starts off strong, in fine Auntie Mame style, but quickly loses energy...Of course, the real reason anyone goes to see a Charles Busch play is to see the master himself parade a paper doll's worth of fabulous retro fashions (these are by Gregory Gale), while rattling off, with exemplary "R-less" mid-century elocution, snappy one-liners lifted from the tropes of long-forgotten films. There's plenty of that marvelous material here...In the midst of all the mayhem, though, Busch even manages to drive home some touching apercus about the turmoil that all parents -- and mentors -- must undergo as they struggle to unclench. For all its laughs, The Third Story proves to be a warm and humane work as well.

Broadway Blog B+
(Michael Dale) Buried beneath the zigzagging plot is a theme about obsessive mothers, I'm sure, but as a play with a message, The Third Story gets a little muddy. But with the playwright gracefully indulging in his expert brand of elegant movie queen spoofery, Turner landing dry one-liners with throaty panache and Scott Parkinson contributing a very funny turn as a character named Zygote - a failed cloning experiment who, among other malformations, has a rather untraditional digestive tract - it does succeed nicely as entertainment.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) Often entertaining and just as often overwhelming...Brightly enacted by the entire cast...these plays-within-the-play also ponder the notion of the Dostoyevskian double, types of maternal love, the quandaries of powerful women in a man’s world and, above all, fiction as a means of arriving at the truth...The good news is that the sprawl and variety of this set-up allow Mr. Busch and company to explore and explode all sorts of vintage cinema clichés, an activity at which Mr. Busch is without peer. Unfortunately, the framing story of Peg and Drew takes its clichés more seriously—and plies them with less confidence—as mother and son learn to accept and value each other. This means that Ms. Turner, who has the least to do in the fantasy sequences, gets the short end of the stick, though she holds on to it tenaciously...Everything that is spelled out rather laboriously in the scenes with Peg and Drew is implicit in the very style of the movie fantasy sequences. Mr. Busch doesn’t need to footnote or deconstruct what he does.

American Theatre Web B
(Andy Propst) It's a rich assortment of tales that all double back to the conflicts that Peg and Drew are trying to resolve. The stories also begin to overlap as the writers' feelings about one another and their work evolve...What's unfortunate is that for all of the careful thought that's clearly gone into "Third Story," and many terrific performances, director Carl Andress' production never spirals to the point of utter hilarity nor to the point of insightful contemplation found in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, a similar sort of exercise in fractured narrative. Instead, "Story" meanders from moment to moment.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) Certainly there was the potential for histrionic - even historic - outrageousness in a femme-fatale smackdown between big-boned old-style Hollywood goddesses with baritone voices...Busch, the gender-illusion master of "Die Mommie Die!" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," always maintains an endearing let's-put-on-a-show spirit that, even in this lesser piece, belies the meticulous craft. He plays both the "queen of the mob" (in Gregory Gale's wasp-waist accordion pleated suit) and the old witch who conjures up a perfect clone of the crippled princess (Sarah Rafferty) to woo the prince. Busch says more with a curled lip than many plays - even some of his own - say in a whole evening of talk...But the story-within-a-story-within-a-story is more dull than demented. "Let's not get too subtle," says Turner. No danger here.

Theatre News Online B-
(Bill Stevenson) Only sporadically entertaining. Busch is in fine form as a hard-boiled mob queen, employing expert timing and his patented tough-broad delivery that recalls straight-talking Hollywood dames like Barbra Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. But Busch's plot, which involves three storylines, is a convoluted mess...The result is a mishmash of genres, themes, and acting styles. Busch's ambitious concept is interesting but proves to be unwieldy. He seems to have spent too long figuring out how to interweave the stories and not enough time coming up with brisk dialogue...It's a bad sign, though, when the outfits are more amusing than most of the dialogue.

NY1 B-
(David Cote) Drag queen-playwright Charles Busch may spin out yards of flashy narrative threads in his ambitious new comedy The "Third Story," but they don't add up to a fabulous new dress - it's more like a shapeless muumuu with a bland pattern. Busch explores the ways in which storytelling conceals and reveals truth, but his scattershot approach only ensures a lot of head scratching between chuckles...I can't blame you if you can't follow the plot. The dense, ridiculous story-within-a-story approach of "The Third Story" may be deliberate, but it's exhausting...At the very least, there's plenty of high-grade camp on display in "The Third Story." Busch can get laughs from the slightest smirk or wink. But next time, I hope he'll stick to one story, and tell that one better.

Lighting & Sound America B-
(David Barbour) Never let it be said that Charles Busch, the playwright and star, doesn't challenge himself...The many plots of The Third Story are worlds apart, and yet they're mysteriously alike...Busch is aided in this bizarre story hour by a most enthusiastic and pitch-perfect cast, as directed by Carl Andress...Busch is at his comic best when he's analyzing the clichés of standard movie genres with the acuity of a Jane Goodall studying the minute details of ape behavior. But Peg's screenplay is a weird mélange of cinematic conventions that's like no film ever seen at Grauman's Chinese, or anywhere else on earth...Still, the production is stylish, thanks to that cast and a highly creative design team...The Third Story is one of Busch's most ambitious works, but it's not one of his best.

Variety C+
(David Rooney) A production headlining Kathleen Turner opposite peerless drag performer and Hollywood parodist Charles Busch might appear to offer the tantalizing promise of dueling divas in the tradition of "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" or "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" In Busch's structurally ambitious but muddled "The Third Story," however, the two stars barely collide or even seem to be in the same play, despite the carefully mirrored themes of its elaborate triple plot. It's always a treat to watch Busch in one of his wisecracking glamourpuss turns, but this overreaching effort is a watery cocktail trying to pass for a more potent dirty martini...In Carl Andress' lumpy, oddly tentative production, the play's multiple strands never come together into a unifying tone.

Time Out NY C+
(David Cote) Multiple narrative threads do not a fabulous frock make in Charles Busch’s ambitious but awkward new comedy...The author and costar certainly gets credit for trying to balance so busy and complicated a structure (and in heels, no less), but the outré plot contortions outweigh any human drama between Turner and Walker. If you find yourself wondering why to care, there is at least plenty of high-grade camp on display: As we know, Busch can get laughs from the merest smirk or innuendo-laden inflection. He and his zestful players spin plenty of yarn; now someone has to mend the loom.

Nytheatre.com C+
(Martin Denton) Busch does sort the muddle out, but it's not particularly persuasive or satisfying storytelling, and finally the proceedings don't seem to point to anything except a middling-good time for Busch...and the rest of the actors. Foremost among these is Kathleen Turner, who post-Virginia Woolf has learned to dominate a stage even when she's competing with the likes of a Charles Busch in his own play; she definitely steals this show, creating a rich and interesting character in Peg beyond what the script really supports...The result is an evening that's not unpleasant, but not particularly memorable and, alas, certainly not especially funny.

Just Shows To Go You C
(Patrick Lee) Kathleen Turner has rarely seemed above sending herself up. Her casting opposite Charles Busch in his new play would seem to promise a lip-smacking treat - a match made in camp heaven between a drag icon who adores Hollywood screen women and a game, one-time real-life Hollywood siren. One of The Third Story’s many disappointments is that it confines Turner almost entirely to a (relatively straight) framing story where her grand theatricality is a liability rather than an asset: her throaty voice and broad delivery are at odds with what’s needed to put over her material...The Busch scenes are more lively than the Turner ones, and the supporting cast has the right arched eyebrow style for them, but the play’s structure forbids comic momentum.

Associated Press C
(Michael Kuchwara) There's a lot of plot in "The Third Story," maybe one tale too many in Charles Busch's overstuffed mixture of mother-son soap opera, '40s film noir, science fiction and Russian folk legend...It's too bad Busch is not the total focus of attention here. This convoluted story is framed by a mother-son Hollywood scriptwriting team, played by Kathleen Turner and Jonathan Walker. The setting is Omaha, circa 1949, where the son has gone to get away from his grasping mother and start life anew as a mailman...You have to admire Busch's quick costume changes and the man certainly has an affection for old Hollywood, particularly the ladies who worked on- and off-screen. But this time around that love has been translated into an overly complicated theatrical valentine.

DC Theatre Scene C
(Richard Seff) It has so much plot that I’m still picking my way through its underbrush three days after seeing it...There are occasional laughs in this piece, but they are separated by long monologues that wander, and by unreal dialogue that seems to go on forever. Mr. Busch has more fun with the evening, for he’s in the fantasy part, and he knows how to make merry with facial expressions, gestures, and the occasional dance step that would never do in a realistic story. Poor Ms. Turner, fine actress that she is, tries to bring truth to her screenwriter Peg, but with truth comes loss of humor.

New York Post C-
(Frank Scheck) The thought of Kathleen Turner and Charles Busch onstage together incites delicious anticipation of camp heaven...Alas, "The Third Story" promises more than it delivers. When one of its characters says, "I apologize for the length of this anecdote," he might just as well be referring to Busch's latest effort, an overstuffed, overlong and underfunny parody of at least two genres too many...Busch's talent for outrageous spoofery is in little evidence here and, despite his typically entertaining dual turns, the evening is as much of a drag as his attire...While several of the performers have fun with their colorful roles, Turner is disappointingly subdued. And Busch's effort to unify his crisscrossed tales via a common theme of obsessive parental love doesn't come off.

New York C-
(Scott Brown) A messy excess that sets the stage for more messy excesses, [Third Story] features not one but two famous female impersonators: Busch himself and Kathleen Turner, nature’s drag queen...Turns out Turner and Busch don’t double so much as crowd each other: Dame Kathleen’s sleepy-grumpy, kiss-my-ass irascibility clashes with Lady Charles’s fringe-y brio. In fact, there’s at least one too many of everything in The Third Story: too many stories, too many themes, too many declarations of purpose in this herniated interrogation of the writing process (and, Q.E.D., Busch’s failure to make that process work this time around).

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) Of the four stories that collide here like a four-car freeway pileup, none merits even so much as momentary rubbernecking. That Busch, the reigning monarch of elegant Off-Broadway camp, could derive such dreariness from such a potentially juicy subject as Hollywood's obsession with treacly family topics shoehorned into any genre is as unfortunate as it is unexpected...Even when Drew and Peg's relationship becomes the evening's dramatic anchor, the play is never moving. And because, unlike much of Busch's frothier work, the characters aren't developed past the storyboard stage, the play is almost never funny. Busch's unblinking, camera-fellating takes are, as always, good for a chuckle or two...Everyone else comes across more eggy than they do hard-boiled.

Daily News D+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A labored affair by Busch about mother love and letting go. There are laughs and jazzy designs, but the play, composed of three overlapping tales, is too complicated for the payoff and at 2½ hours is as padded as the shoulders on a '40s frock...Comedy fares best when it's streamlined. Here though, the three parallel stories don't build upon each other, but flabbily restate what's already been covered.

Talk Entertainment D
(Oscar E. Moore) When Charles Busch is good he is very, very good, but when he’s bad–yes I know it should read–he’s even better. But in this case he is unfortunately not. I am still convalescing over my disappointment with Mr. Busch’s latest effort – “The Third Story”. It’s complicated, convoluted, too long and not up to his high comic standards. Both in his writing and in his performance. Do I dare say it’s boring?

The Record D
(Robert Feldberg) Succeeds neither as high-spirited burlesque nor as a camp-classic take on a familiar film genre. The old wit and comic magic are missing, and even the presence of Kathleen Turner, who might seem a natural stage adversary, doesn't help...As these plots connect and collide, with lots of talk, but little that's funny, the evening begins to have a numbing effect. Busch the writer's attempts to say something psychologically fresh about parent-child relationships are especially dreary. Busch the actor provides what comic pleasure there is, through his inimitable performing style of exaggerated grimaces, stately poses and ripe line readings.

New Yorker D
A convoluted bore...The parallel plots bounce similar motifs off alternating fun-house mirrors, but the effect, rather than revelatory, is simply repetitive; no amount of clever doubling can compensate for the thinness of the emotional through-line.

Hartford Courant A 13; Village Voice A- 12; Bloomberg News A- 12; CurtainUp B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; The New York Times B 10; American Theatre Web B 10; Broadway Blog B 10; Newsday B- 9; TNO B- 9; NY1 B- 9; L&SA B- 9; Variety C+ 8; TONY C+ 8; Nytheatre.com C+ 8; Just Shows To Go You C 7; Associated Press C 7; DC Theatre Scene C 7; New York Post C- 6; Ne York C- 6; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; Daily News D+ 5; Talk Entertainment D 4; The Record D 4; New Yorker D 4; 204/25=8.16 (C+)

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