Shanghaied Gestures

Two New Shows Explore the Fun of What's Been Seen Before

You could almost analyze it as a matter of contrasting cultural heritages. Charles Busch and Richard Foreman, more than a generation apart in age, grew up on, and work in counterpoint to, the same kinds of theater, though their approaches are vastly different. Both are almost equally fascinated by film, a realm in which their tastes are likewise disparate. Foreman's matrix is silent film, especially of the slapstick and French-surreal varieties; Busch inclines toward Hollywood weepers of the big-studio era. The now antique style of "well-made" Broadway play on which both were nurtured is to Foreman a site ripe for nightmarish philosophic infiltration: a spiritually empty, albeit lavishly furnished room in which mad chains of associated ideas can incarnate and burgeon to fill the available space. Busch's impulse is simpler: He just wants to move into the room, take over its luxurious appurtenances, and have fun.

Since the room in question belongs to the theatrical past, this makes Busch a madcap Goldilocks, slurping up the porridge of its history. To atone, while feeding on the past, he simultaneously makes a joke of it, asking, in effect, "Why shouldn't I steal this if it's such trash? Besides, I look fabulous filching it." Which he does. Since Foreman's guilts, worn more openly, virtually are his pleasures, he has no such problem. His even less likely tactic is to sneak into the abandoned past and pour his own freshly deranged porridge into its cracked old bowls. The resulting mix of flavors, delightful to me, is notoriously not for every taste. Busch's straightforward subversion has wider appeal.

Shanghai Moon, Busch's latest entry on the list of past genres to subvert, deals with that eternal collision, so dear to the hearts of Art Deco collectors, between the ancient, corrupting East and the brash, all too willingly corrupted West. The matrix for this myth was formed in 1915, when Sessue Hayakawa lured Fannie Ward into his clutches in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. Among the myriad plays, movies, and drugstore novelettes it spawned were Maugham's East of Suez and The Letter, and John Colton's The Shanghai Gesture. Lilian Braithwaite was pursued on the London stage by Mr. Wu, while on-screen Barbara Stanwyck drank The Bitter Tea of General Yen. As you see, it took a lot of artistic recycling to change Marlene Dietrich's name to Shanghai Lily. Even Mae West, you may recall, is being kept by the wealthy Chinese owner of a San Francisco gambling den in the opening reel of Klondike Annie, and Busch could do worse than adopt her theme song from that sequence, "I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood Called Love."

Panic! (How to Be Happy!): as the brain turns
photo: Paula Court
Panic! (How to Be Happy!): as the brain turns

Details

Shanghai Moon
By Charles Busch
The Drama Dept. at Greenwich House
19 Barrow Street
212-633-9632

Panic! (How To Be Happy!)
By Richard Foreman
Ontological at St. Mark's
Second Avenue and 10th Street
212-533-4650

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Busch is Lady Sylvia Allington, who has come with her aging, ailment-ridden husband to visit the Shanghai home of the warlord General Gong Fei. Lord Allington has been sent by the Home Office to acquire for the British Museum an ancient Manchu sculpture from the General's fabled collection, and this contrivance, absurd in itself, is as close as the evening gets to dramatic logic. The logic of the genre's myths, however, the script follows immaculately, as Gong Fei's passion and Lady Sylvia's frustrations, or maybe vice versa, lead them inexorably into one another's arms and thence to an epic series of disasters, climaxing with the pistol shots that open William Wyler's superb film version of The Letter and coming to a full close with a revenge so thoroughly theatrical that—opera fans will know what I mean—it would scarcely be out of place in Adrienne Lecouvreur's dressing room. As the action wends its luridly spoofy way, Busch gets to pose as a grand lady, a Bright Young Thing, a hard-bitten slut from the wrong side of the tracks, a helpless victim of passion, the victor in a series of bitch-slaps, a temple dancer (think Tilly Losch in The Good Earth), and the badgered defendant in a courtroom drama. ("I'm not acting," Lady Sylvia declares of her elaborately posed sincerity in this last section.)

The paradoxes that Busch embodies so beautifully—the ladylike man, the utterly innocent poseur, the genteel person steeped in coarseness—are in their glory here, with the running joke on gender giving the jokes on genre and ethnic stereotype an extra-giddy spin. The hard part is that Busch has written himself such a festival of opportunities, and carries them off so appealingly, that his excellent supporting cast hardly gets a look in. B.D. Wong, as the General, solves the problem by marching steadfastly through the role, as if declining to notice the explosions of laughter from the detonating jokes in all his speeches. Daniel Gerroll, doubling as Lord Allington and the thuggish captain of a boatload of opium (you knew that a boatload of opium would be involved), tries gamely to match Busch's cartoon fervor, though given much weaker material. Becky Ann Baker, as a local brothel madam, and Marcy McGuigan, as an ancient Chinese doctor, get what fun they can (a lot in Baker's case) out of the character-actor turns prescribed for them. The whole thing, under Carl Andress's direction, is raffish, and good-natured, and just a bit stiffly one-dimensional—except for Busch, whose two-dimensional iconography is always only the top layer of a mile-high sandwich of attitudes and commentary. First comes the pose; next his pleasure in the pose and his hope that you share it; next his awareness that the pose itself is old and cheesy; below that his sense that it's a female pose of which he can only make a temporary construct; at the very bottom is that basic impulse, always found in a Busch performance, the child's pleasure at play and mimicry. If the atmosphere in the dramatic space surrounding Busch's performance, here as in previous outings, seems thin, it may be simply because he carries so much density on his own.

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