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Our Leading Lady

In this world premiere production by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Charles Busch's period play feels dated and fussy. logo
Maxwell Caulfield, Kate Mulgrew, and Ann Duquesnay
in Our Leading Lady
(© Joan Marcus)
Playwright Charles Busch's purpose is unclear during the campy first act of Our Leading Lady, a semi-comic work that imagines backstage events before, during, and after Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater in April 1865. Where, oh where is Our Leading Lady leading, you vainly wonder as the intermission begins. What Busch is getting at only begins to come into focus at the start of the second act, when veteran actress Maude Bentley laments John Wilkes Booth's homicidal gesture, saying: "The delicate ribbon of affection that binds public and player together has been severed."

The author's intentions are even more obvious towards the denouement of this disappointing period exercise, when the bickering troupe members finally begin to enjoy each other's company. Busch has penned a valentine to actors, thereby entering into literary annals yet another opus about players putting on a play. That subject seems to be unusually abundant these days, and the fact that this one revolves around Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew) -- star of Our American Cousin, the play that Lincoln was watching when he was shot -- doesn't eliminate a sense of deja-vu. The play feels as dated and fussy as its Santo Loquasto set and Jane Greenwood costumes are burnished and beautiful.

During the contentious rehearsal before the performance that proves fatal to the President as well as to Keene's career, the martinetish actress-manager is having a helluva time keeping her colleagues in line. Among them are Verbena De Chamblay (Kristine Nielsen) and her husband, Gavin De Chamblay (Reed Birney), a closeted homosexual. There are also tardy soubrette Clementine Smith (Amy Rutberg), the above-mentioned Maude Bentley (Barbara Byrne), and handsome Harry Hawk (Maxwell Caulfield), who compensates for on-stage deficiencies with sexual prowess in Keene's dressing-room. Others hovering constantly are gofer-cum-understudy W. J. Ferguson (Billy Wheelan) and Keene's servant, Madame Wu-Chan (Ann Duquesnay), a former slave masquerading as a Chinese woman. (Go figure.)

Bush, an actor who has made his name impersonating women from every social stratum and from all corners of the globe, might predictably be drawn to an actress whom history has turned into a sad footnote. Indeed, the play's best scene -- and arguably the only one of genuine interest to a contemporary audience -- involves leading lady Keene describing her ministrations to the dying Lincoln in the nearby boarding house to which he'd been carried after being shot by Booth.

In another sequence of more than passing interest, Keene tries to talk the departing Madame Wu-Chan, now fessed up as Pratty Johnson, to remain in her employ. Here, Busch underlines his sub-theme about women bucking their traditional station in life. Otherwise, the backstage shenanigans, including Gavin De Chamblay hitting on the innocent Ferguson, are just padding. In a plodding scene late in the play, a Major Hopwood (J. R. Horne) interrogates the actors about their possible implication in the President's shooting.

Under the circumstances, director Lynne Meadow is at a loss in instructing her actors how to disport themselves, though Mulgrew is apparently at no loss in the role of thespian Keene. Her most recent New York stage appearance was as Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five, and she plays Keene as Hepburn might have, or as if Keene were a pre-Hepburn Hepburn. Anyone who remembers the great Kate performing the in-house melodrama that begins the film Little Women will have a good idea of how Mulgrew's Keene sounds. The other actors -- with the exception of Ann Duquesnay, who's quite moving in her Pratty Johnson scenes -- are valiant but ineffective.

The last Busch play in which the author provided himself no role was The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which features a heroine who's nearly as histrionic as Laura Keene. But that controlling, complaining leading lady was a hoot and a half. This time, Busch hasn't written Our Leading Lady so much as Our Leaden Lady.

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