The early, campy works of playwright and actor Charles Busch are well known in GLBT circles. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! have been performed frequently, and the latter two were made into hit movies starring Busch.
In recent years, Busch has been writing more mainstream but no less comedic plays, most notably the Tony-nominated The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. He is currently starring with Kathleen Turner in his latest work, The Third Story, on Off-Broadway.
This month, Southern California theatergoers can enjoy the West Coast premiere of Busch’s 2007 play, Our Leading Lady. It will be performed February 19 to March 8 by the acclaimed Neighborhood Playhouse in Rancho Palos Verdes. Not only will this be the work’s LA-area debut, but it is also the first production of Our Leading Lady anywhere since its New York run. The play was proclaimed “Hilarious, delicious fun” by the New York Times.
This history-inspired comedy takes place during the final week of the Civil War. Legendary stage actress Laura Keene is doing everything she can to ensure President Lincoln attends her final performance at the Ford Theatre. As Laura moves ruthlessly towards her goal, she and her theatrical troupe must face an unfortunate but inevitable collision with history.
Brady Schwind, director of the Neighborhood Playhouse’s production, spoke with me about Our Leading Lady. “It’s a hilarious play by a wonderful playwright,” Schwind said. “It’s so great to discover a new play that is so funny; there really are very few truly funny new plays.”
Since this is the first performance of the play outside New York, Schwind has been collaborating closely with Busch. “It’s neat for an emerging theatre company and a thrill for me as director to have Busch’s seal of approval.”
The cast of Our Leading Lady includes Gillian Doyle (as Laura), Tracy Ahern, Rita Hull, James Jaeger, Michael Prohaska, Michael Tatlock, Kathleen Taylor, Carla Valentine and Robert Youngs. Jaeger says, “The play is intelligent and accessible. The characters, even at their most ridiculous moments, are treated by the playwright with respect and even tenderness.”
Jaeger, who plays the character “Ferguson,” also spoke about the play’s plot. “I think it illustrates, through comedy, how deeply and personally tragic historic events can affect us — to a point that borders on complete self-centeredness. But it does so without preaching or criticizing.”
Even with this serious theme and the play’s build-up to the assassination of President Lincoln, it is first and foremost a comedy. The New York Times critic wrote that Our Leading Lady is “a testament to playwright Charles Busch’s belief that theatre can and should reflect the human comedy at its most ridiculous and its most uplifting.”
The West Coast premiere of Our Leading Lady is part of what is only the Neighborhood Playhouse’s sophomore season. Believing that “art is alive when you embrace it,” the Playhouse’s board of directors and artists strive to provide innovative, quality theatrical productions while donating a portion of each production’s profits to charitable organizations in the LA area. During its first full season last year, the Neighborhood Playhouse staged the LA-area premiere of the controversial musical Parade. It was a tremendous success with critics and audiences alike.
The Playhouse is actually part of the landmark Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes Estates. Originally a seaside palazzo built in 1927 to serve as the summer residence of business tycoon J. J. Haggarty, it is one of the most beautiful and historic locations in all of Los Angeles county.
“There is a need in this area for more adventurous theatre,” Schwind believes. Situated between the South Bay, Orange County and Los Angeles, the Neighborhood Playhouse appears to have a bright future ahead.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.