Friday, February 7, 2020

159 (2019-2020): Review: THE CONFESSION OF LILY DARE (seen February 6, 2020)

“They Had Faces Then”

Without the brief program note accompanying The Confession of Lily Dare, Charles Busch’s campily pitch-perfect, affectionately nostalgic spoof of pre-Code movies of the early 1930s, it’s unlikely that anyone other than hardcore film buffs would be able to identify such influences on it as The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Frisco Jenny, and Madame X. One might also toss the 1936 post-Code San Francisco into the blender, as well as a passel of women’s films from those bygone days. 

What emerges captures the sentimental contrivances of those largely forgotten black and white weepies and somehow, while making hilarious mockery of their histrionic extravagances, actually manages to tug at our cynical tear ducts. 
Kendal Sparks, Nancy Anderson. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Allergist’s Wife), of course, is the master drag artist cum playwright, who has done this kind of thing before (just check out the vivid program covers of the plays on his website), if not always quite as effectively. The multi-scened play, crammed onto the Cherry Lane Theatre’s intimate stage, deploys a decorative yet neutral set designed by B.T. Whitehall to capture San Francisco’s old-time ambiance.

Bookending the script are scenes at the grave of Lily Dare (Busch), to whose resting place, located beside the Golden Gate Bridge—illuminated on the upstage wall—come her best friends, Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson), a blonde former hooker with a heart of gold, and Mickey (Kendal Sparks), Lily's faithful gay accompanist. Hence the setup for the flashback of her life that occupies the bulk of the two-hour, two-act comedy.
Kendal Sparks, Charles Busch, Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson, Howard McGillin.
As the episodic action speeds by, displaying the arc of Lily’s flamboyant career, we watch her arrival in San Francisco as a Swiss convent-raised, operatically talented, innocent teen orphan. Taken in by her loud, ostentatiously brassy Aunt Rosalie (Jennifer Van Dyck), madam of a flourishing Barbary Coast brothel, she meets the aforesaid Emmy Lou and Mickey. Also there are Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin), a silver-haired, rich, elegant, but admittedly shady dude, and the sweet young bookkeeper, Louis (Christopher Borg), by whom she becomes pregnant before he loses his head, literally, in the great earthquake of 1906.

There follow Lily’s travails as an unwed mother, forced to give up her baby daughter to the wealthy Dr. Carlton (Borg) and his wife (Van Dyck). Then there’s the frame-up that sends her to prison, as well as her two careers, one as Mandalay, a swaggering, smoky-voiced cabaret singer in the Marlene Dietrich/Mae West mold, the other as Treasure Jones, a tough brothel madam.
Jennifer Van Dyck, Christopher Borg, Charles Busch.
When the Depression crashes and things get rough, she commits a murder for which she’s sentenced to be hanged. Meanwhile, her daughter, Louise (Van Dyck), becomes a famous opera singer, obsessed with finding her birth mother. Lily, however, is too ashamed to let her know the truth. Naturally, this precipitates a visit to Lily’s prison cell only minutes before she’s scheduled to meet the hangman. 

Like its celluloid origins, the material is egregiously corny but, played by these terrific thespians with a matchless mixture of comedy and compassion, you actually feel something stirring beneath the laughter.
Howard McGillin, Charles Busch.
Longtime Busch collaborator Carl Andress has put together a delectable production for Primary Stages, with fine period costumes by Rachel Townsend. Responsibility for Busch’s own, often over-the-top, creations, though, is in the talented hands of Jessica Jahn, complemented by the marvelous wigs of Katherine Carr. Busch warbles an original torch song, “Pirate Joe,” in the pseudo-Kurt Weil mode, by Tom Judson, who also arranged Busch’s throaty, more spoken-than-sung approach to the old Ted Lewis standby, “In a Shanty in Old Shantytown.”
Nancy Anderson, Charles Busch.
But what really weaves the heavily plotted yet often sketch-like fabric into theatrical spun gold are the insanely apt performances, each a comically priceless contribution. It starts with Sparks’s grounded, and thankfully, not effete Mickey; moves on to the colorfully upbeat rhythms of Anderson’s sweet-natured Emmy Lou; and steps higher into a perfectly limned caricature of McGillin’s sybaritic—and, later, down-beaten—Blackie.
Jennifer Van Dyck.
It then goes through the roof with the wildly diverse portraits of Van Dyck (behold another Tracey Ullman) and Borg, both displaying devilishly clownish versatility. Finally, soaring into humor heaven is Busch, with his trunkful of facial and eye-batting tics, drop-dead funny inflections, artificial Hollywood diction, leading lady attitudinizing, and subterranean emotionality. Watch closely and you’ll see traces of one cinematic femme icon after the other—from Crawford to Davis to Stanwyck to Dietrich and so on—in his cornucopia of filmic mannerisms.
Charles Busch.
I confess to having had a great time at The Confession of Lily Dare. I daresay you probably will, too.

Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St. NYC
Through March 5