Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch
in The Third Story
(© Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch
in The Third Story
(© Joan Marcus)
Plays-within-plays require such intricate tailoring. So it's a pleasure to report that with The Third Story, now enjoying its New York premiere at the Lucille Lortel under the aegis of MCC Theater, the ever-captivating Charles Busch proves equally deft as both performer and seamstress. Even if not every element of this complex play quite holds together, this is one inventive crazy-quilt.

The central tale concerns down-on-her-luck screenwriter Peg (Kathleen Turner), who has tracked down her son and erstwhile collaborator Drew (Jonathan Walker) in Omaha, hoping that with his help she'll be able to recapture her vanished pizzazz. It's evident right off the bat why he has opted for a satisfying career as a Midwestern mail-carrier over life in the Hollywood fast lane. She's one of those smother-mothers afflicted with not-so-covert rivalry issues. "Why couldn't you have been born a fabulous Aries like me?" she brays.

Turner starts off strong, in fine Auntie Mame style, but quickly loses energy. As her lines grow choppy and start to drag, so do her scenes with Drew. And once we've seen the alternative -- the often riotous B-movie scenario that Peg cooks up, focusing on tough-talking lady mobster Queenie Bartlett (Busch) -- we're no keener than Peg is to hang around in drab Nebraska.

In Peg's ever-more-complex scenario, Queenie -- who is suffering silently and nobly from a terminal disease -- cooks up a plot to clone herself so that she can stick around to defend her son and successor, Steven (Walker again, here far more animated). The plan requires the help of uptight lady scientist, Dr. Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck in pure Ida Lupino mode), her misshapen offspring-of-a-sort, Zygote (a twitchy Scott Parkinson), and Hudson's longtime colleague, Dr. Rutenspitz (also played by Turner). Finally, as the play's title suggests, there's a third story: an amalgam of Russian folk tales featuring Baba Yaga -- a terrific hideous-crone role for Busch -- who plans to split her shy helpmeet Vasalisa (Sarah Rafferty) in two so that the girl's more confident twin will be equipped to woo a prince.

Of course, the real reason anyone goes to see a Charles Busch play is to see the master himself parade a paper doll's worth of fabulous retro fashions (these are by Gregory Gale), while rattling off, with exemplary "R-less" mid-century elocution, snappy one-liners lifted from the tropes of long-forgotten films. There's plenty of that marvelous material here, enough so that Peg's story proves to be little more than a negligible if persistent interruption.

In the midst of all the mayhem, though, Busch even manages to drive home some touching apercus about the turmoil that all parents -- and mentors -- must undergo as they struggle to unclench. For all its laughs, The Third Story proves to be a warm and humane work as well.