Charles Busch and Daniel Gerrollin Shanghai Moon
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Charles Busch and Daniel Gerroll
in Shanghai Moon
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
After sitting out the leading lady role in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which he might as well have written for himself, drag performer-playwright Charles Busch is back in women's clothes. Throughout the Drama Dept. revival of his 1999 play Shanghai Moon, he shamelessly borrows mannerisms from Mae West, Joan Crawford, and other slinky ladies of the 1930s silver screen. Swathed in organdy, silk, and fur by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case and looking like Miriam Hopkins's red-headed sister, Busch throws attitude with an English accent that shifts into poor-neighborhood American every once in a while for reasons made clear about half way through the plot.

He plays Lady Sylvia Allington, who with good intentions has journeyed down a particularly thorny garden path from her southside Chicago upbringing. Reporting that the first words toddler Sylvia Borowchowsky spoke were "Get me outta here," she explains that she's spent most of her life trying to better herself by pretending to be someone she isn't. She has always meant well, but sometimes her passions have gotten the better of her. They certainly do when she finds herself enthralled by General Gong Fei (B.D. Wong), a tough fortune cookie who is involved in the drug trade and addicts her to opium.

There is, of course, a similarity between Busch and Sylvia that might actually indicate an autobiographical underpinning to the play. The actor-dramatist has established an impressive career pretending, like Lady Sylvia, to be what he isn't. It's the likeability that radiates from Busch as he slips into another gender that makes him such a magnetic stage figure; his innate warmth, much the same quality that Harvey Fierstein has by the pound, is what makes Busch's vehicles amusing.

Spoofing old movies is a Busch specialty. Here, he examines the exotic, erotic, pre-Hays Code flicks in which what was then known as the inscrutable East served as a metaphor for women's sexual longings and fears. Busch admits that the elements of Shanghai Moon were lifted from items like Barbara Stanwyck's star-making Bitter Tea of General Yen, Shanghai Express, Wild Orchids, and The Cheat. Curiously, he doesn't include The Letter. It's from that black-and-white melodrama that he appropriates a murder trial and, more specifically, Bette Davis's florid final line about "the man I killed" still being "the man I loved."

In Busch's parodies and pastiches, the plot is not the thing. The most theatergoers might recall of the plot is the fact that, as Gong Fei's guests, Lord Allington (Daniel Gerroll) and bride have come hoping to purchase a carved jade sculpture from him. Spending most of her time in a main hall that B.T. Whitehill has designed with tongue in cheek, Sylvia falls for the dictatorial general. In one frenzied moment, she dons a supposedly traditional dance girl's costume and goes into a shimmy. At another point, she shows up under the influence of opium. (Upon entering the theater, patrons may notice a sign that warns: "Cigarettes will be smoked. Opium will be puffed. Fog will roll in.")

Marcy McGuigan, B.D. Wong, and Seklya Billmanin Shanghai Moon(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Marcy McGuigan, B.D. Wong, and Seklya Billman
in Shanghai Moon
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Attempting to trip Sylvia up as she works her Western wiles on Gong Fei for 90 intermissionless minutes are the unintelligibly philosophizing Dr. Wu (Marcy McGuigan), the skulking Mah Li (Sekiya Billman), the conniving half-breed Mrs. Carroll (Becky Ann Baker), and first-husband-to-Sylvia Pug Talbot (Daniel Gerroll again). Eventually, the jade sculpture is smashed (sound designer Laura Grace Brown and lighting designer Kirk Bookman have fun with that moment). Gong Fei is shot six times. The guiltless Lord Allington goes on trial and is defended by barristers Sir Geoffrey (Baker again) and Sir Lionel (McGuigan again).

Since the narrative is arbitrary, it's what goes on minute to menacing minute, scene to sinister scene, that must hold audience interest. This is where Busch trips over the hem of his gown: Some of the episodes don't pay off, and the accumulating feeling is one of tedium. Busch writes that the jade artwork brings bad fortune to all who possess it, but that ominous bit of information isn't reiterated for maximum mock-scare pay-off. Lady Sylvia goes haywire on opium but recovers quickly. Mrs. Carroll looks to be introduced as a threat to Sylvia but never is, and the same is true of Pug Talbot. Busch seems to think that throwing in as many ingredients as he can from half-forgotten flicks is enough to produce a full-bodied satirical stew, but he's wrong about that.

Where he meets with success are in the one-liners he gives himself and -- gracious comic writer that he is -- hands around to the others, like a hostess circulating with a tray of tangy hors d'oeuvres. Consequently, every member of the cast gets the opportunity to spout something that's gleefully meaningless. Daniel Gerroll is properly Colonel Blimp-ish as Lord Allington and, as Pug Talbot, gets to speak the kind of lower class English he almost never is assigned. And Becky Ann Baker, wearing white face as another character trying to be what she's not, seems as if she's having fun channeling Judi Dench. (Maybe the impersonation isn't intended, but it's effective all the same.)

As Sir Geoffrey, Baker looks and almost sounds like Leo McKern as Rumpole; it's a brief turn but a kicky one. B.D. Wong, wearing a skimpy pencil mustache, glowers well through the seduction segments -- but, when he lowers his voice every time he says "Gong Fei," he's going for a joke he can't seem to land. Sekiya Billman as Mah Li (is Busch playing on the name Molly?), and Marcy McGuigan as Mr. Wu and Sir Lionel reap diminishing returns in roles that start out on one note and hold it. If director Carl Andress had been more inventive, the entire cast might have kept its spirits effervescing.

With Shanghai Moon, Busch apparently wants to remind audiences how politically incorrect we all were not that long ago. Maybe he means to suggest that we still have to watch out for similar lapses. But there isn't much in Shanghai Moon that's relevant to today in a political sense. The production rises or falls purely on entertainment value, and Charles Busch remains an adorable performer even if, at the moment, his creative moon seems to be on the wane.