Van Hansis, Charles Busch, and Ashley Morris
in Die Mommie Die!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Van Hansis, Charles Busch, and Ashley Morris
in Die Mommie Die!
(© Carol Rosegg)
In Die Mommie Die!, now at New World Stages, fading chanteuse Angela Arden (Charles Busch) returns from her husband's funeral wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and chic black coat of the sort Jackie Kennedy might have selected for a solemn occasion. Away from the public's searching eye and surrounded only by her viper's-nest family and friends, Angela opens the coat in a flamboyant leading-lady gesture to reveal a black-and-white lining and matching dress Cruella de Vil would choose if she had a sense of humor.

It's the visual high point of yet another look-back-and-laugh item in which Busch frames his drag self to shimmer as a latter-day Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward or Ida Lupino (or all four at once). The outfit is just one of the many Edith Head-influenced frocks designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case with their tongues deeply embedded in their cheeks, while the elaborate wigs Busch sports -- and which must take up a dressing-room of their own -- are by Katherine Carr. It's these artists, as well as lighting designer Ben Stanton, who strike the right tones throughout a piece that's otherwise often tone-deaf and yuk-deprived.

In the high-tension laffer, first written in 1999 and turned into a superior film version in 2003, Angela tries to keep sharp-tongued daughter Edith (Ashley Morris) and swishy son Lance (Van Hansis) in line while opting to take extreme measures involving a poisoned suppository to do away with her crass hubby, movie mogul Sol Sussman (Bob Ari). Also sneaking in and out of doors on Michael Anania's Beverly Hills-Moorish set are religious fanatic housekeeper Bootsie Carp (Kristine Nielsen) and pansexual former TV series star Tony Parker (Chris Hoch).

Busch, who knows more than he often lets on in his campy personae, wants Die Mommie Die! to be more than a movie send-up. The subtitle he puts on script -- "The Fall of the House of Sussman"-- indicates he sees histrionic Angela playing Clytemnestra to Sol's Agamemnon on post-Atreus turf. Perhaps with this blending of fourth-century Greek tragedy and mid-century celluloid melodrama, he's tackled more than he can bring to ground.

The plot -- which pulls in Angela's late twin, Barbara -- is contrived rather than concocted. Granted, flicks like A Stolen Life, from which the narrative is culled, were also contrived, but the screenwriters weren't going for the chuckles that only come intermittently in Busch's pastiche version.

Nonetheless, the reason to see the play is Busch, once more employing his cunning vocal tricks as the put-upon, scheming Angela. He's got all the great-ladies-of-the-silver-screen mannerisms -- the shoulder-swaggering walk, the cross-legged sit, the withering stare, the self-sacrificing chin quiver, and especially the scene-ending rictus of horror. Unfortunately, director Carl Andress hasn't seen to it that the other cast members have their leading lady's expertise. Morris, Hansis, and Hoch mistake exaggerated film emoting as simple ineptitude; while Nielsen, whose mannerisms are becoming increasingly cloying, once again goes over the top. She prods amused response, but her portayal is out of kilter with the material being kidded.

Out at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre this summer, Busch revived The Lady in Question in a production that was as close to perfectly realized as a fan could hope. There's undoubtedly a good reason why Busch and his producers didn't import that persuasive mounting, but it might have been wiser if they had than bringing us Die Mommie Die!