“First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp/Then someone’s mother/Then you’re camp.” Thus, in Follies, Stephen Sondheim graphed the career cycle of American screen divas. Charles Busch, playwright and gender illusionist, began his drag-diva career with the last stage, his impish humor and parodist’s taste for obscure old movies giving him a kind of permanent pass for traveling back and forth along the line. Die Mommie Die!, his latest opus, locates the intermediate stage where fading divas became, in cheap horror flix, both someone’s mother and camp. Or, at worst, someone’s psychotic aunt, in the Harriet Sedley tradition.
Redolent of ancient Hollywood gossip as well as these “hagsploitation” films, Die Mommie Die! is a baggy, sketch-like piece about a worn-out recording star (Busch), the hotshot-liberal movie-producer husband who now loathes her (a dryly droll performance by Bob Ari), their screwed-up kids, a TV hunk, and an all-too-knowing housekeeper. Its funniest sequences are genuine roarers, which make its frequent lags and uncertainties of tone, under Carl Andress’s direction, all the more irritating; Busch’s aplomb has to keep coming to the rescue. Fortunately, Busch, in drag, is a lady of infinite aplomb. Besides Ari, Ashley Morris, as a quasi-incestuous teen tot of appalling sugariness, does a lot to keep the spoofery from fizzling. But I miss the—dare I use the word subtler?—days of Red Scare on Sunset and The Lady in Question.