Sabrina Spalding, Jack Wallen, and Eli Lucas in Die! Mommie Die! Photo courtesy of Pandora Productions.
Die! Mommie Die!
By Charles Busch
Directed by Michael J. Drury
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
“I’m like an old Philco TV, but I just kind of dial up the brightness and the contrast”
This quote from a live cabaret performance by Charles Busch could be referencing his play, Die! Mommie Die!, which is a parody of the kind of grotesque, overwrought melodrama that fueled the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the 1960’s. Busch is certainly juicing up an old model, registering the conniving and backstabbing plot twists beneath a veneer of arch camp.
The “psycho-biddy” at the center of this story is Angela Arden (Jack Wallen), an aging movie star and singer who lives in an opulent Beverly Hills mansion with her movie producer husband Sol P. Sussman (Sean Childress). Daughter Edith (Sabrina Spalding) and housekeeper Bootsie Carp (Susan Crocker) are both somewhat overly devoted to Sol, and emotionally quixotic son Lance (Eli Lucas) comes home from college after getting to trouble for organizing a same-sex orgy with some of his professors.
Angela longs to escape her crumbling career and loveless marriage with Tony (Michael Lee Stein), the well-endowed struggling actor/tennis pro stud who seems to always be around the house, and she takes action by attempting to poison Sol.
The dialogue is so overripe, delivered with snide so arch it hurts, and staged with appropriate ham-fisted style, that you are never in danger of missing any of the jokes, even when they are painfully obvious. Busch made a career out of dusting off the old models and reinventing them through the lens of kitsch and what was at that time gay “subculture”, and spinning the whole enterprise into something wicked and fun. His influence on his own and the next generation of artists was considerable.
Nobody knows how to bring this kind of material to life better than Pandora Productions and director Michael Drury, so if opening night felt a little flat to me personally, it may be not quite to my taste, or it may the usual first night nerves tightening up the cast just enough for them to miss the joy of it. I’m not entirely certain.
Jack Wallen plays Angela like a late-career Kim Novak with Tim Curry’s voice, and holds the center with confidence. There is no point in even attempting this show without a strong performance in this role, which was originated by Busch himself, and Wallen does not disappoint.
Eli Lucas is equally mannered and precocious as Lance. He also understands how to play this material, rejecting naturalism without becoming intolerably ridiculous. Sean Childress gives Sol all of the weary, old-school Jewish Tinseltown veteran the script calls for, alternately precious and doting and cruel and cutting.
Sabrina Spalding can balance innocence and wickedness with aplomb, so she is well cast as Edith, whose attachment to daddy hints at something less than wholesome (the staging is not nearly as subtle as that observation), but she needs to relax a bit. Michael Lee Stein cuts a rakish figure as Tony, his period appropriate long hair hiding a deceptive immorality. Susan Crocker is a reliable and professional presence in any production, yet she never felt right for me as Bootsie. It may have been the one off moment in the otherwise impeccable design vision for the show that Bootsie seemed altogether too plain. I mean, she IS a housekeeper, but this is also Charles Busch, and none of these characters should underwhelm.
The set by Patrick Jump is the most open and expansive west coast home this side of the Beverly Hillbillies’ mansion, and Susan Toy’s costumes are right on the money. Sound designer Laura Ellis and lighting designer Martin French remind us why their names appear in so many programs, as quality is always in demand. Their work was crucial in the realization of several trippy transitions into fourth-wall breaking asides, and a prolonged chemical trip that plays an important part in the second act.
Die! Mommie Die! might reach its intended giddy heights; its the harsh truth of reviewing theatre that opening nights are rarely the best performance. And it is especially true that comedies demand the interaction of an audience to be all that they can be. So if you are a fan of Pandora or a fan of Charles Busch, you can hardly afford to pass up what, flaws and all, is an essential production for Louisville audiences.
Die! Mommie Die!
May 10 – 20, 2018
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
For tickets go to: Pandoraproductions.org
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.