Adrianna (Cynthia Harris) rich but crabby old widow who lives in an extravagant NYC town house has taken an incongruous liking to Jimmy (Charles Busch), a newly unemployed female impersonator, and allowed him to be her companion and border during the down time. (But never call him a drag queen; he prefers the designation that gives the play its title—and title role—The Tribute Artist.) She also has a curious tolerance for a more contemporary friend, a below average (and lesbian) real estate agent, Rita (Julie Halston), who is tonight also a houseguest. In the morning, the drag queen and the lesbian emerge from a good night's rest to discover that their hostess will not be waking up again, having shuffled off in her sleep. The ensuing comedy, with elements of farce, is about how the house guests conspire to pass off the impersonator as the widow just long enough for the agent to sell the town house and split the projected 12 million in proceeds. And how they improvise madly to compensate for the unexpected appearance of an estranged niece (Mary Bacon), her transsexual teenaged daughter (-cum-son) (Keira Keeley) and a younger and somewhat shady former lover (Jonathan Walker).
I've never particularly been a fan of Busch's drag genre-movie parody plays, though his more sincere comedies have tended to surprise me with a capacity for genuine humanism. Because of that, I had high hopes for The Tribute Artist; and was ultimately somewhat disappointed. Though the piece isn't parody, its cast of "Out There" characters pull Busch toward a degree of camp excess, some of which fights with — and I use the word in its freest context — verisimilitude. By which I mean, the key to "sincere" comedy is believability; and though Busch does get laughs with some of those jokes and bits, I think he pays for them too, resulting in a comedy that never quite settles into its declared style. And as if to underscore the point, Busch does a good deal of mugging along the way, further compromising our willing suspension of disbelief. Under the direction of Carl Andress, though, the production is cleanly (naughtily) entertaining, with a talented cast of Busch "usual suspects" who play along with game conviction and even abandon.
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