Monday, February 24, 2014

Off-Broadway Reviews: "The Tribute Artist," "Transport"

The Tribute Artist
Written by Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress
Performances through March 30, 2014
59 E 59 Theatre, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Book by Thomas Keneally, music & lyrics by Larry Kirwanh, directed by Tony Walton
Performances through April 6, 2014
Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Halston, Harris and playwright Busch in The Tribute Artist
(photo: James Leynse)
Cross-dresser extraordinaire Charles Busch conjures a clever concept for his latest farce, The Tribute Artist: he plays Jimmy, a drag queen pretending to be his elderly landlady Adriana after the widow unexpectedly dies in her beautifully appointed Greenwich Village apartment, where he is staying. With help from his good friend Rita, a lesbian real-estate agent, Jimmy hopes to sell the place for millions before anyone catches on to the ruse.

But unexpected hijinks ensue. Adriana’s niece Christina, with her transgender teen kid Oliver sin tow, shows up, insisting she’s the rightful heir when her “aunt” dies; they are joined by Rodney, an ex-tryst of Adriana’s whom Oliver finds on Facebook and invites over. And that’s just the tip of a very convoluted iceberg.

Busch is a veteran comic writer whose dialogue often has bite (or at least bark), and the inherent silliness of the situation is always a given. It’s unfortunate, then, that he so often takes the path of least resistance, like a lazy series of jokes about drag queens and desperately alluding to campy old Hollywood movies to increasingly less funny effect.

The clotted plot (which I only summarized) hinders the humor from flowing smoothly; indeed, scenes extend beyond their miniscule life by frantic overexplanations that do nothing but add to the running time, so Busch ends up turns his own play into a drag, if anyone remembers the other meaning of that word.

Anna Louizos’ gorgeous set suggests a multi-million-dollar piece of Village property and Gregory Gale’s costumes are delightful. Carl Andress directs as broadly as Busch writes, and if Busch has done this role countless times, he can still deliver one-liners and double entendres like no one else.

Julie Halston, as Jimmy’s sidekick Rita, hams too much even in this muggable context; contrast her with Mary Bacon’s Christina, a small-town mom trying to handle the Big Apple. Bacon’s skillful, subtle portrayal garners more credible laughs as well as sympathy. Cynthia Harris (Adriana), Keira Keeley (Oliver) and Jonathan Walker (Rodney) round out an ensemble that nearly saves The Tribute Artist from itself.

The cast of Transport (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Thomas Keneally—whose fine books The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler’s List became classic films directed by Fred Schepisi and Steven Spielberg, respectively—has impeccable credentials as an historian, specializing in his own country, Australia.

So his book for the musical Transport—which follows the travails of mid-19th century Irish women who, convicted of various crimes, were shipped off to the penal colony of New South Wales (not yet Australia) to help propagate the species with male convicts already there—seems a can’t-miss proposition.

But Keneally’s book isn’t up to the task, mainly because a musical isn’t the right form: history book, novel or film—either fiction or documentary—would better encompass such tragedy. Collaborators Keneally, composer Larry Kirwan and director Tony Walton are unable to develop the epic scale of human misery and, conversely, humane uplift with sufficient artistry.

We are left with fragments of a superior show about women banding together to defiantly survive a hellish voyage and a merciless captain’s mistreatment. (Males like a priest and doctor are more sympathetically sketched: but the captain has a last-minute change of heart.) The Irish Rep’s cramped stage allows a sense of the cruel treatment and shoddy conditions to come through, but with only four women to stand in for hundreds onboard, the story’s vast scope is trivialized.

Walton’s savvy direction and set design can’t overcome Kirwan’s songs—blustery ballads, romantic duets and a jig or two to nod toward Irish music—which include platitudinous lyrics of the Moon-June variety. A game septet of actors, especially the intensely focused and beautiful-voiced Jessica Grove, does its best to keep Transport from running aground.

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