by Cory Conley · February 10, 2014
You can forget about Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, those cunning swindlers played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who lie at the center of this year's Oscar-nominated American Hustle. Sure, they scam their way through a major FBI investigation, take down several politicians, and make a pile of money. But can they do a decent Marilyn Monroe impression?
I suspect not, in which case they just don't measure up to Jimmy, the titular character of Charles Busch's breezy and delightful new play The Tribute Artist, at Primary Stages. Jimmy recently lost his job as a drag performer in Las Vegas, and he has returned to stay at the gorgeous Greenwich Village townhouse owned by his elderly friend and sometime benefactor Adriana. It's a lovely situation--- that is, until Adriana dies in her sleep, leaving behind no other friends or loved ones except Jimmy and his friend Rita, a real estate agent. After grieving for, well, a minute or so, Jimmy and Rita quickly hatch a scheme: he'll pose as Adriana, then they'll sell the house and split the money, netting them each about six million dollars.
Things go awry, of course, once Adriana's estranged niece Christina shows up, with her newly transgender son Oliver in tow. The will designates them as the sole inheritors of the estate, and Christina is far from ready to make a deal with Jimmy and Rita. Thrown into the mix is Adriana's long-lost lover Rodney, played deliciously by Jonathan Walker, who begins to wonder why his paramour has turned decidedly less feminine over the years. (Mary Bacon brings a grounded energy to the nearly unhinged Christina, while Keira Keely shines as Oliver.) You'll have to see it to find out what happens, but suffice to say: nobody's what they seem, and everybody's working an angle.
Jimmy, I should mention, is played by Busch himself, and that's one of the many reasons to visit this production, directed by Carl Andress. Busch is an expert interpreter of his own work, and his presence is a gentle and stirring embrace. He's joined by his longtime collaborator Julie Halston, who inhabits Rita with a zesty aggression. Together, they're a pair of delightfully twisted hosts whose journey you'll follow with glee.
If it all sounds much too kitschy, you might be glad to know that there are some genuine insights here, about acceptance, family, and (especially) the crucial role that gender stereotypes play in our understanding of people. I saw The Tribute Artist on the same day I saw the brilliant all-male production of Twelfth Night on Broadway, and I'm still reeling from the way both productions mix up our learned notions of masculine and feminine.
But enough of that. The Tribute Artist is mostly just a warm, splendid entertainment, and a precious chance to witness this gifted and often unsung artist at the peak of his process.