Writer, actor, and downtown drag icon Charles Busch pays homage to pre-Code melodramas about women done wrong in The Confession of Lily Dare, a sinfully seductive treat that continues at the Cherry Lane through March 5. Honoring such films as San Francisco, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Frisco Jenny, and Madame X with a healthy dose of Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, and even Hayley Mills, the play is told in flashback, beginning in 1950 when former prostitute and oft-married Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and piano player Mickey (Kendal Sparks) are at the grave of their old friend Lily Dare. “Nobody can say this boneyard isn’t deluxe,” Emmy Lou says. “Lil, how in blazes did a Sawdust Gal get to lie down with the upper crust? And howja finagle the grand tombstone? You should see the stone carving. It’s gorgeous . . . just like you.” The action then shifts back to 1906 and the story begins, revealing just how Lily managed to be buried in the ritzy section of the cemetery. The journey recalls such classic flashback noirs as Citizen Kane, DOA, The Killers, and Double Indemnity, just a whole lot funnier.
Following the death of her mother, darling little Lily (Busch) arrives at the doorstep of her aunt Rosalie Mackintosh (a riotous Jennifer Van Dyck), who runs a successful Barbary Coast brothel. Lily had been in a fine convent school in Switzerland, where she learned four languages, but now, at sixteen, she’s broke with nowhere else to go. The tough-talking Rosalie is not exactly thrilled that Lily is there, but she decides to take her in nevertheless, at least temporarily. Everybody who meets Lily is instantly captive to her charm, from penniless bookkeeper Louis Markham (Christopher Borg) to dapper whorehouse regular Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin), who tells Lily, “I’m what is known as a shady character from a once prominent family who adds a veneer of class to whatever room he’s in.” Lily wants to be a singer, but her dreams are curtailed by the San Francisco earthquake, a pregnancy, and a stint in the hoosegow, after which she follows in her aunt’s footsteps, all the while keeping track from afar of the daughter she had to give up.
Busch is at his diva best as Lily, all dolled up in outrageously funny costumes by Jessica Jahn and wigs by Katherine Carr. (Rachel Townsend designed the duds for the rest of the cast.) Busch has never met a double (or single) entendre he didn’t like, and Confession is full of them, along with lots of zany, tongue-in-cheek knowing glances. It’s more than mere parody, instead infused with a passion and an adulation that permeate every scene, immersing the audience in its several atmospheric genres. Anderson is utterly charming as the squeaky-voiced hooker with a heart of gold, Sparks is sweet as the innocent Mickey (who wants to write “The Bordello Symphony in four movements: the Madame, the Stoolie, the Flatfoot, the Stooge”), and McGillin is appropriately smarmy as the devilish Blackie, but Borg and Van Dyck (in her ninth Busch collaboration) nearly steal the show as a series of fab characters, from a baron and baroness to a doctor and his wife to an opera impresario and his soprano protégée. Van Dyck is so sensational that the audience is all atwitter each time she merely enters as a new character, our expectations soaring and wholly satisfied.
Director Carl Andress (The Tribute Artist, The Divine Sister), who has been working with Busch since 1997, keeps the slapstick coming, along with some genuinely touching moments; as beautifully bawdy as the dialogue is (“Somehow or other, we got by. There’s always work to be found for a piano player who knows ragtime and a hooker who does anal,” Mickey says. “These new-fangled tarts have one customer and then put a ‘Closed for Renovation’ sign on their privates,” Rosalie complains.), the actors’ delivery rockets it into another stratosphere, each character having a distinctly hilarious method of speaking. The way lines are said is often as important as the words themselves, which is central to both high and low camp. Longtime Busch set designer B. T. Whitehill adds lovely romantic flourishes to the stage, incorporating the Golden Gate Bridge and numerous cute no-budget details.
Busch (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) has spent much of the last ten years staging short-run plays at Theater for a New City, quickie productions with no press and featuring his friends; when Primary Stages asked him to participate in the company’s thirty-fifth anniversary season, he decided to bring back Confession, which played at TNC in 2018. It’s a terrific choice, as he gets to vamp it up all he can in a work that has semiautobiographical elements, perhaps giving him an extra shot of fervency; Busch’s mother passed away when he was seven and he was sent to live with his aunt, but not in a brothel. Though it’s not quite The Confession of Charles Busch, you don’t have to get the many cinematic references to love Busch and Confession, a fab show with plenty of kitschy melodrama to spare.