Three women of a certain age huddle in a tastefully appointed Manhattan townhouse, speaking of past regrets and the imminent death of one of their number. The other two stumble upon a plan to keep the dying third alive through impersonation to net a fortune in real estate. Wait, allow me to back up a bit. Given that The Tribute Artist (playing at 59E59 Theatres through March 16) is the latest daft and delightful comedy by Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die, Mommie, Die!), we’re talking about two women and one female impersonator. Busch, just shy of 60, may have softened a bit in the decades since being a downtown sensation as a cross-dressing actor-playwright, but The Tribute Artist will keep his fans chortling while keeping the option open to amuse some new Busch leaguers.
Busch plays ”tribute artist” Jimmy, with the delicious Julie Halston as Rita, a flailing lesbian realtor and the longtime Ethel to his Lucy. The two team up to impersonate the irascible Adriana (Cynthia Harris), who leaves behind an impeccable Manhattan home (scenic designer Anna Louizos, again, does not disappoint) and unforeseen relatives such as niece Christina (Mary Bacon), a laid-off beautician with an unlucky streak, and Christina’s trans teen son Oliver (Keira Keeley), whom she keeps calling Rachel. Then comes the untimely arrival of Adriana’s younger ex-suitor (Jonathan Walker), who tells tall tales of woe which almost always result in him being stripped naked. He throws Jimmy off his impostor game — especially when Jimmy begins to delve into his performance go-tos (Marilyn, Bette, Joan and the like) rather than maintain composure as a newly empathetic Adriana.
You can expect the piquant one-liners Busch has become renowned for (”It’s just fascinating how expensive that boa looked until you put it on”), not to mention his penchant for rehashing lines from old TCM melodramas (in one meta moment, Rita calls Jimmy out wantonly repurposing classic movies). Though the show is perhaps fifteen minutes or so more than it should be, there is great fun to be had in this larkish romp with a surprisingly forward-looking attitude (when was the last time you saw a trans character in a full-out comedy who wasn’t used merely for insipid comic relief?). The cast is uniformly game — especially Halston, who continues to steal every one of Busch’ plays. With The Tribute Artist, Charles Busch is peddling a familiar stock — this one is a blue-chip that continues to pay comic dividends. B+