Die, Mommy, Die!
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Celebration Theatre at the Lex
Through March 26
Cross-dressing actor-comedian Charles Busch wrote this glossy movie parody as a vehicle for himself in the central role of has-been movie star, Angela Arden. He performed in the play in Los Angeles several years ago, and his Angela was subtle and elegant. But now actor Drew Droege is giving him a run for his money — Droege puts his own stamp on the part, skillfully skewering the character’s ruthless egotism, pretensions and manipulations.
The plot is a clever mash-up of old Bette Davis movies, with emphasis on the two films in which Davis played identical twins — A Stolen Life and Dead Ringers, with bits of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? thrown in.
The show opens with a brief slideshow revealing Angela’s tawdry and scandalous past. She was a big star — until she wasn’t. Suddenly her talent disappeared, like the snows of yesteryear, leaving her obsessed with making a comeback.
Angela’s household is as bizarre as she is: She has a husband, movie producer Sol (Pat Towne), who’s plagued both by debts owed to dangerous people and digestive problems. She also has a lover, Tony (Andrew Carter) a TV actor turned tennis pro, who’s as vain as Angela, and famous — or is it infamous? — for having the largest physical endowment west of the Mississippi. Daughter Edith (mysteriously but zestfully played by black actor Julanne Chidi Hill) loathes her mother, but nurses an incestuous affection for dear old Dad. Son Lance (Tom DeTrinis) is a gay boy who was all set to play Ado Annie in his school’s production of Oklahoma! till he was expelled for burning down the gymnasium during an anti-war protest (the time is the 1960s).
There’s also a maid, Bootsie (Gina Torrecilla), who’s a secret drinker and carrying on a below- the-radar affair with Sol. And the family is also haunted by the death of Angela’s twin sister, Auntie Barbara, who died under mysterious circumstances. (The twists of the tale give Droege the chance to play both Angela and Barbara, sometimes simultaneously.)
Plots and counter-plots proliferate like rabbits, and there are at least two murders and one apparent suicide, though most of the victims are miraculously resurrected in time for a improbably glorious happy ending.
Director Ryan Bergman stages the piece as a merry sendup of all the clichés of Old Hollywood, and he has assembled a terrific cast of skilled farceurs. Droege’s comedy timing is so formidable it’s almost scary, and he can bring down the house with lines that are only moderately amusing. It’s true that much of what he does is mugging — but it’s mugging of a high and eloquent order. DeTrinis is equally adept at this comic skill, and the rest of the ensemble provide strong and loyal support on Pete Hickok’s pastel and faux marble set.
This show may not be everybody’s cup of tea, and those who are not amused by cross-dressing and camp may find little joy in it. But for its target audience, it’s pure ambrosia.
Celebration Theatre at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with a 10 minute intermission.