The Lady in Question
NEWSWEEK, SEPTEMBER 4, 1989
Camping the Movie Classics
Busch puts on the drag
By FRANK RICH
The first hit of the new theater season is “The Lady in Question.” What makes this off-Broadway success fascinating is that it’s the brainchild and bodychild of Charles Busch, who wrote it and stars as its heroine. Call it female impersonation or transvestite theater, this tradition ranges from Julian Eltinge, who in the early 20th century became a huge international star playing female roles, to Broadway’s “La Cage Aux Folles.” Comic performers like Charlie Chaplin and Milton Berle had occasional fits of cross-dressing. But today the genre is part of the increasingly complex culture of gay sensibility. Starting as a performance artist, Charles Busch has gone on to commercial success with such spoofs of pop culture as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” (now in its fifth year). You won’t find Sen. Jesse Helms among the spectators (or would you?) but Busch has surpassed the late king of camp, Charles Ludlum, in hitting it being with what he calls a “crossover audience.”
That audience simply adores “The Lady in Question,” which is Busch’s takeoff on Hollywood anti-Nazi movies of the ‘40s. Busch keys on the plot line of MGM’s “Escape,” in which Normal Shearer helps Robert Taylor get his actress mother (Nazi-mova) out of the clutches of Nazi bigwig Conrad Veidt. Busch mutates the Shearer role into Gertrude Garnet (Gar-nay, that is), a concert pianist who used to be A Brooklyn honky-tonker called Barrelhouse Gertie, the Kissing Kitten of the Keys. Touring in Bavaria, Gertrude gets caught up with the local Nazi creeps, whose bellicose boasts she ripostes with kiss-offs like: “You may take the Maginot Line, but you’ll never take the Canarsie Line.” Busch doesn’t scorn pure low-burleycue gags: the Nazi baron (Kenneth Elliott, who also directed), smitten by Gertrude, says: “May I offer youth use of my schloss?” to which the inevitable double-take reply is, “Come again?”
The cast clearly has fun kidding the Hollywood stereotypes of the time, notably Julie Halston as Gertrude’s wise-cracking Eve Arden-type buddy and Andy Halliday a murderous Hitlerette à la Bonita Granville. But queening at spoof central is Charles Busch as all the ladies in question: dropping a lubricious growl-bomb like Tallulah Bankhead, flipping hips and wrists in the Bette Davis boogie, cocking her winsome head like Katie Hepburn. Busch seems capable of diva-ing in deeper waters, but there’s no denying that he turns his fans into happy campers.
The Lady in Question, written by Charles Busch; directed by Kenneth Elliott; set design by B.T. Whitehill; costume design by Robert Locke and Jennifer Arnold; wig design by Elizabeth Katherine Carr, lighting design by Vivien Leone; production stage manager, Robert Vandergriff. Presented by Kyle Renick and Mr. Elliott. At the Orpheum Theater, 126 Second Avenue, at Eighth Street.
Mr. Busch (Gertrude Garnet), James Cahill (Voice of the Announcer), Mark Hamilton (Professor Mittelhoffer/Dr. Maximillian), Theresa Marlowe (Heidi Mittelhoffer), Robert Carey (Karel Freiser), Arnie Kolodner (Prof. Erik Maxwell), Andy Halliday (Hugo Hoffmann/Lotte von Elsner), Mr. Elliott (Baron Wilhelm von Elsner), Julie Halston (Kitty, the Countess de Borgia), Meghan Robinson (Augusta von Elsner/Raina Aldric)
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