They say there's no business like it, but viewed in a more cynical light, show business seems painfully similar to most other forms of businessnothing but money grubbing, petty jealousies, secret agendas, and cutthroat competition. The main difference is that theater people's business involves saying so openly: From The Rehearsal to Light up the Sky and onward to Noises Off, nobody can say meaner things about show folk than they do about themselvesor, at least, about each other. Once they get going, nobody's motives are pure; nobody's truth is ever more than a carefully crafted illusion. And if that sounds just like upper-echelon corporate life, it should: Just as the stage is a standard metaphor for the world, the disorienting realm we call backstage is the mirror of our hidden world, a place where everything stage illusion disguises can get spilled out, and spelled out explicitly, under harsh, unflattering work lights.
Charles Busch's delightfully snarky, bittersweet new comedy, Our Leading Lady, catches a backstage world at its crisis point. The secrets are ready to spill, and when the crisis occurs they all come tumbling hilariously out. The crisis is a biggie, since Busch's backstage is the one at Ford's Theatre in Washington, before and after the most famous disaster in American stage history, the performance of Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin by Laura Keene's company on April 14, 1865. No, Mrs. Lincoln didn't enjoy the play, and Busch offers an ample stock of additional reasons why, from an alcoholic ingenue to a doddering character woman who can't always tell Camille from Uncle Tom's Cabin. A surprising amount of Busch's caprice is historically accurate, though I suspect you would search the biographical dictionaries in vain for data on the fading diva Verbena de Chamblay, whose Cleopatra allegedly enthralled Chattanooga in 1858. But Keene, who seems to have been a rather remarkable woman in reality, deserves a play of her own, and Busch has captured her complex, indomitable spirit in all its facets from low cunning to high hauteur. His reward is a big, juicy Peach Melba of a performance by Kate Mulgrew that seizes all the nuances of Keene's character and lays them out for us, broadly but with grace, in something akin to a genuine 19th-century style.
A good thing too: Mulgrew's gleaming presence not only anchors the action and illuminates the skill in Busch's writing, but also keeps lifting up Lynne Meadow's lumpy production, heavy of touch and often annoyingly uncertain in tone. Apart from Mulgrew, redoubtable Barbara Bryne as the dotty character lady, and Ann Duquesnay as an eccentric dressing-room drudge, everyone onstage is either miscast, undercast, or off focus. I delight in Kristine Nielsen's comic style, but if she's a Southern belle, Nantucket is one of the Florida Keys. Reed Birney and Maxwell Caulfield, actors beloved for their low-key charm, are wildly out of place as the stock company's "walking gentleman" and leading man, respectively. Meadow tries to drive through the script's mid-Victorian ornateness and pound hard on its laughsexactly the reverse of the approach Busch's charming play demands. A comedy with such a deliciously wicked tongue doesn't need to keep sticking it out at the audience.
The central joke of Our Leading Lady is that show folk view even national tragedy as a mere catalyst to their own internecine conflicts. A similar joke, not so lucidly made, underlies Curtains, the long planned Kander and Ebb musical. Setup: On the opening night of an Oklahoma!-like musical's Boston tryout, the talent-free leading lady gets snuffed during the curtain call. The show's in dire trouble, and the entire company despised the victim, which gives a healthy supply of possible suspects. Too healthy, it turns out: The murder-mystery genre's need for at least a minimal degree of coherence and credibility keeps getting squashed by the Broadway musical's eternal need for showy numbers, lovable performers, and cheap, loud laughs. The result, once you've learned to stop bothering about the lengthy tangles of crime-story exposition (which make not one ounce of sense anyway), is a lot of sound and fury signifying mild diversion. Curtains' creative team has clearly worked hard, but without being completely sure what they were doing or why. The numbers are showy but distinctly second-drawer, the designs lavish, but with no overall style to their lavishness. And the incoherence is capped by a solution to the mystery featuring not one but two murderers, both lumbered with absurd motives, and both hopelessly overtaxed in terms of means and opportunity.
What rescues Curtains is what's rescued many loud, cheery, less-than-great musicals over the decades: its cast, manifestly the most adorable assemblage of performers in town: Debra Monk (producer), Michael McCormick (backer), Edward Hibbert (director), Jill Paice (ingenue), Noah Racey (choreographer), Karen Ziemba (lyricist), Jason Danieley (composer), Michael X. Martin (stage manager), Megan Sikora (scheming understudy), and even John Bolton (the inevitably villainous critic), are all the kind of performers you'd wrap up and take home with you if there were room in the apartment. And David Hyde Pierce, as the homicide detective with showbiz dreams, handles far more demanding musical-theater tasks than in the feckless Spamalot with a mixture of diffidence and pluck that suggests someone at last finding himself totally at home on the stage.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.