Charles Busch, Scott Parkinson, Sarah Rafferty, Kathleen Turner, Jennifer Van Dyck, Jonathan Walker
That writer and drag performer Charles Busch has a wild imagination is indisputable.
His campy style is distinctive and excessive, woven into every minute of his latest play, The Third Story, now running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as part of MCC Theater’s current season.
A send-up of film noir sensibilities – the rapid speech patterns, the terrifyingly stilted diction, the over-the-top costumes – The Third Story focuses on a mother-and-son writing team, Drew and Peg, played by Jonathan Walker and Kathleen Turner respectively.
Having fled the communist-fearing, HUAC-addled Hollywood of the 1950s, Drew has settled down in Omaha near his father only to be tracked down by the persistent Peg, who’s eager to team up for a screenwriting collaboration back in L.A.
The play interweaves three interrelated stories. The first consists of the naturalistic mother-son scenes. The other two are fanciful fictional story lines, namely a fairy tale-inspired plot line based on a story called Baba Yaga made up by Peg to for her son Drew when he was a boy and the science fiction noir send-up featuring Busch on-stage as Queenie Bartlett (he also plays Baba Yaga), a campy, terminally ill woman on a quest for a mad scientist to clone her for posterity.
The disparate threads of plot come together to address themes of parents and children, of letting go and mutual trust. As rendered here, however, these weightier themes seem merely tacked on as a means to legitimize Busch’s otherwise slight comedy. The scenes that pack the most punch are those between Jonathan Walker, whose performance is the most level-headed of the bunch, and Kathleen Turner. Turner’s are the only jokes that ever really register; Peg is given the best one-liners, and Turner’s husky-voiced charm is well-suited to the role of loving, overbearing mother.
The bulk of the evening is taken up by low comic antics and predictable jokes, all piling up to highlight the notion that the most successful forms of camp are those that aren’t quite so conscious of their craft. Busch has some interesting ideas here, but the hemming and hawing on-stage transmits at a horrendously amplified pitch across the footlights. Admittedly, many in the audience will lap it up (and did at the performance I attended), but what’s on display is off-puttingly in-your-face, not quite the inspired, well-timed comedy one hopes for.
The design elements supporting Busch’s flimsy script are nonetheless inspired. David Gallo’s backdrops successfully aid the transition between sepia-tinged Omaha and the adrenaline rush of Hollywood, while Gregory Gale’s costumes are colorful and imaginative, particularly his diva-inspired designs for Busch himself, topped off by spot-on wigs by Tom Watson.
The idea behind the play’s title is the concept in screenwriting that a writer doesn’t find his or her stride until the third story. The first two are spent working out kinks and finding the script’s natural voice; the third should be more spot-on. Unfortunately, The Third Story never quite feels like a third story. One wishes it were instead called The Fifth Story, having had more of its bumps ironed out by Mr. Busch. As it stands, it’s sloppy and meandering, lacking any real sense of spontaneity and good, old-fashioned, unfettered fun.