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Charles in Charge

Telling the tale of an allergist's wife. logo
At the end of a preview performance of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at Manhattan Theatre Club, the audience cheers as Linda Lavin, Michele Lee, and Tony Roberts take their bows. Yes, it's a dream cast. Just ask the playwright, Charles Busch, who's conspicuously absent from the boards this time around. "I've only not appeared in The Green Heart [his musical of two years ago at MTC] before," Busch notes.

Charles Busch
Not to worry; New York's best-known crossover drag artiste has no intention of retiring from acting. He's played everything from a movie star (Red Scare on Sunset) to an empress (Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium) to the eponymous heroine of Queen Amarantha. "But the only way I seem to get roles is to write them for myself," he cracks.

We're chatting in Busch's cozy Bank Street apartment, decorated with the same yellow-flowered wallpaper and red-laquered chinoiserie immortalized in the stage set for You Should Be So Lucky, Busch's only "pants role" to date. "No matter how campy or silly all those movie parody plays are, they're very personal to me," he insists.

He began his New York career after graduating from Northwestern, where he studied with director Frank Galati (Ragtime). Busch hung around Chicago long enough to start a small theater company, with disastrous results. "They were a miserable group of people, a nest of vipers," he says. "I was devastated when it all fell apart, but I had this 'bravado' reaction: I put together an evening of solo pieces called Charles Busch: Alone with a Cast of Thousands." That's how he met his frequent collaborator, Ken Elliott. Busch got his first New York break in 1978 thanks to the late Charles Ludlam, who let him do some midnight shows at the fabled Ridiculous Theatrical Company in Sheridan Square.

Busch's latest work is, you should pardon the expression, a straight play. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is a dark comedy about Marjorie Taub (played by Lavin), an Upper West Side matron who's a frustrated, wanna-be intellectual. ("I am no stranger to the New School of Social Research," she wails at one point.) Into the routine lives of Marjorie, her recently retired allergist-husband, Ira (Roberts), and her terminally kvetching mother, Frieda (the incomparable Shirl Bernheim), bounds the flamboyant Lee Green (née Lillian Greenblatt) in the person of Michele Lee--although one can't help picturing Busch himself in the role.

"This play's been kicking around longer than Abie's Irish Rose," quips the prolific author, who knocked off last year's Shanghai Moon in a mere two weeks and got it up and running immediately. In actual, non-Busch time, it's only been about three years since he conceived ...Allergist's Wife, and a year and a half since the play was completed. Then Busch waited for Linda Lavin to become available.

Linda Lavin
"I wrote Marjorie for Linda," he explains. "She's an expansion of my own character of Miriam Passman [a Scarsdale matron who does a cabaret hommage to Edith Piaf]. The mother, Frieda, embodies the most outrageous aspects of the two aunts who raised me. But all of the women in my family tend to be very emotional and articulate, so you could say I've been taking notes for this play all my life. I had my own wacky Auntie Mame, who loved the eccentric child that I was and sent me to art school. I based Frieda in part on her last years, which unfortunately were sour and filled with ill health. That's part of the dark side of this comedy, which Lynne Meadow got immediately. We had this instant rapport, and I knew she wouldn't turn it into an episode of The Nanny."

While waiting for MTC to mount ...Allergist's Wife, Busch spent last summer on stage in Los Angeles in his "Grand Dame Guignol" parody Die! Mommy! Die! He also was heavily involved in the filming of Psycho Beach Party, a new movie he wrote, based on his Off-Broadway hit of 1987. Busch originally played Chicklet, a 16-year-old surfer girl; but now, "I play the glamorous Captain Monica Stark, LAPD. Think Susan Hayward as a police chief." His co-stars include Thomas Gibson (Dharma and Greg) and teen idol Nicholas Brendon (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). Scheduled for release this summer, PBP was screened in the coveted, Saturday midnight Blair Witch Project slot at Sundance last month. ("No pressure there," Busch snorts).

As if all of the above weren't enough activity for any normal person, Busch has become a regular on OZ, HBO's down and dirty prison drama. "I'm so un-street," he laughs, "but [producer/writer] Tom Fontana created this superficially fragile character for me who's actually quite lethal. I've already suffocated a mob boss in his cell--and I'm in six of the eight episodes this season, so who knows what I'll do next?"

What's the key to Busch's high level of productivity? "For the last few years," he says, "as a therapeutic exercise, I always start something else immediately after a project is done--in order to get over the letdown. I've made notes for a new play for myself. It's a generational saga about the first lady of crime, from age 17 to 60. She's a sort of Ma Barker character, a sociopath. But with great charm, of course."

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