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The Lady in Question

Bay Street serves up a sumptuous and hilarious revival of Charles Busch's 1988 comedy. logo
Richard Kind and Charles Busch in The Lady in Question
(© David Rodgers)
At the curtain call for a recent performance of the Bay Street Theatre's revival of Charles Busch's The Lady in Question, the star/author -- still sporting Dona Granata's thigh-slapping version of a 1940s woman's skiing outfit and an equally rib-tickling Katherine Carr wig -- told the audience that he and his co-stars were still "ironing in the kinks." Well, it's possible that a hiked kink factor could make this Lady even more amusing, but any enhancement will only be icing on what's already a sumptuous pineapple-upside-down comedy cake served up by a pitch-perfect and picture-perfect cast.

Supposedly run up hurriedly in 1988 to fill an available WPA schedule slot, The Lady in Question tells the red-nail-biting story of ex-vaudeville keyboard zany and now high-toned concert pianist Gertrude Garnet (pronounced "Gar-nay") and what happens to her when she's invited to stay at a Bavarian schloss where the owners are devoted to Adolf Hitler.

Accompanied by old pal Kitty, Countess de Borgia (Julie Halston), the politically-disinterested Gertie is pulled into the Anschluss maelstrom when Professor Erik Maxwell (Perry Ojeda) attempts to free his imprisoned mother Raina Aldric (Candy Buckley) from the clutches of schloss owner Wilhelm Von Elsner (Richard Kind) and his treacherous mother Augusta (also Buckley, making top-speed costume changes). Fighting on Maxwell's noble side is young Heidi Mittelhoffer (Ana Reeder). Tugging with malice against them is demon-seed Lotte Von Elsner (Matt McGrath in scary braids). Caught between the nubile misses is Karel Freiser (Barrett Foa), whose newly-minted SS-convictions appear to be unshakable.

In premise, The Lady in Question isn't much different from the sort of thing Carol Burnett and her expert troupe might have scampered though three decades ago with big-bucks CBS backing. But the execution here is what makes the two-hour experience a joy. Presenting the tale as if it's on celluloid, Busch contrives a plot that is simultaneously funny and suspenseful. The jokes are non-stop and nary a one dips into vulgarity. When Gertie's told she's behaving like "a different woman," Busch lowers his gravelly voice even farther and replies, "I am a different woman." There's also a verbal duel between Gertrude and Augusta over titles of Schubert pieces, wherein Teutonic pronunciation becomes the gag.

These days when the United States is waging an entirely new kind of war, Busch's send-up is really relevant to very little. It's merely a funny take on the kind of movie Hollywood goddesses made during the World War II days to underline the notion that American women were contributing as much wartime valor as men. Okay, perhaps there's something to be said for Busch's by-now polished female impersonations that has to do with definitions of femininity evolving over the years. Certainly, men in drag bars today are the only women behaving anything like Busch's slight exaggeration of screen idols from the so-called Golden Age.

In wheeling out his brimming barrels of laughs, Busch is helped by everyone surrounding him in his furs, feathers, and finery. His chief aide is director (and frequent collaborator) Christopher Ashley, who's got the players emoting on just the right bug-eyed, plum-voiced plane as they inhabit Derek McLane's adaptable schloss -- a properly gloomy environ with a glowering Hitler portrait given pride of place.

Busch and Halston are the only cast members reprising their roles from the original production, and have to be that much more adept at them and extracting twice the fun. Buckley matches the leads in her over-the-top behavior; McGrath, wearing layers of pink petticoats, is enough to give sinister carryings-on a good name; Ojeda is properly staunch as upright Professor Maxwell; Foa and Reeder are terrific secondary love-interest caricatures; Kind harrumphs well; and Larry Keith, doubling as Nazi detractor and then Nazi enthusiast, is also high-spirited.

An ever-present element in any suspense flick is the soundtrack with its menacing chords and anxiety-ridden melodic motifs. Here, sound designers Tony Smolenski and Walter Trarbach haven't stinted on the prerequisite -- and have even interpolated references to Miklos Rozsa insistent score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. The musical stings and stirrings are just additional signs that this Lady struts -- no question about it.

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