Inspiration comes to playwrights in strange ways. The play that Charles Busch started writing when commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse is very different from the show that will have its world premiere September 16.
The Third Story is actually comprised of three overlapping tales woven together into a fast and funny play. The first story is a realistic account of an aging, fading screenwriter in 1949 Hollywood who implores her son to collaborate with her on a new script. The second story is a B-movie take-off about the uneasy alliance between “a mob queen and a frosty lady scientist” that’s sure to please fans of Busch’s Hollywood-inspired comedies. Finally, the third story is a Russian fairy tale in which a painfully shy princess makes a dark pact with a mercurial old witch. The Third Story became the mother and son screenwriters’ quest to bring the B-movie to life, mixed with the fairy tale the woman screenwriter would tell her son.
Most of the actors play more than one role, including Busch. In a departure from his usual starring vehicles like Shanghai Moon, which he successfully revived in the Hamptons earlier this summer, Busch confessed that he plays two supporting character roles, including “a wrinkled old crone.”
Settled in at his condo in La Jolla, the award-winning playwright and actor was graciously forthcoming about the show and why you’ll want to watch what you say around him lest it end up on stage.
“It’s a lovely group of actors and the theater’s nice and everything’s going fine,” Busch explained, sounding a little nostalgic for Manhattan’s easy access to everything without the need of a car. I asked him what inspired him to write The Third Story, since it seemed like such a departure for him. “Well, it is and it isn’t a departure — it started off as the same-old, same-old,” he laughed, “but then it turned into ‘Oy vey, oy vey!’
I kept reading about playwrights who had relationships with regional theaters, and I thought, ‘I should have a relationship with a regional theater.’ It’s so difficult — you know, my career has all been just presenting things strictly in New York. You’re sort of under this spotlight, and it’s intimidating to work. You’re second-guessing what ‘they’ — whoever ‘they’ are — what ‘they’ might think. It’s really good for me to work on a play in a more congenial environment.”
The La Jolla Playhouse commissioned Busch to write the play, which he described as “the history of Twentieth Century crime as told through the persona of this “First Lady of Crime,” sort of a mob queen.
“As I started writing it, I decided, ‘I don’t want to write that play!’ For one thing, my work has been getting more personal and complex, and I didn’t want to write just a spoof of gangster movies. On the other hand, if I tried to write it more realistically, I don’t think I’m equipped to write an episode of The Sopranos,” he laughed.
“I started thinking of the era in which these gangster movies would have been made, toward the end of Film Noir,” he said. “I thought one story could be about this mob queen, and then another story could be a framework about this woman screenwriter who’s been around since movies began and is somewhat on the downslide. Since it’s all about storytelling, what if I wrote a third story, which was a fairy tale the screenwriter used to tell her son as a child? It sort of developed into stories within stories within stories. The theme that developed was how, among other things, writers use so many elements of their lives consciously and unconsciously, and use their relationships, and sentimentalize their relationships … and cannibalize their relationships and exploit their relationships …” he laughed.
“There are many different tones,” Busch added. “It’s very dramatic at times and hopefully very funny. It’s sort of a roller coaster of tone. Whatever ‘they’ think of it, I must say, I’ve had a fascinating experience writing it. It’s a very challenging play for me.”
I was curious whether Busch felt there were any modern counterparts to all of the great women actresses he salutes in his films. He answered, echoing Norma Desmond, that it’s the films, and especially the tabloid culture that have made stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and the like impossible to recreate. There’s no mystery allowed today’s stars, so he asked, “Who’s to say that George Clooney wouldn’t have been a star in the 30's?” He pointed to Angelina Jolie, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett as actresses he feels have star quality.
He’s also looking forward to playing Baba Yaga, the witch in the Freudian fairy tale, which is the kind of character he’s enjoyed doing in staged readings. Interestingly, he noted that he and a lot of his colleagues who play these classic screen divas find themselves facing the same kind of challenges the actresses they emulate experienced later in their careers. Does that mean that you’ll be seeing Lypsinka selling Pepsi Cola, and Busch marrying a studio head like Norma Shearer? Perhaps we’ll find out if he writes the fourth, fifth and sixth story!
Charles Busch's The Third Story will be performed from September 16 to October 19 at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre in La Jolla, California. To purchase tickets or for more information, call 858-550-1010 or visit the theater's official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.