A woman who loves telling stories has a child, and thereby hangs not just one tale, but a great many of them, elaborately and complexly tangled together. The forest of narrative is dark, and its paths are twisted. At least so things are in the magical world of Charles Busch, whose narrative forest gets deeper and more mysterious as he ventures further along its unexplored byways.
Busch used to invent simple old-movie spoofs, spiced with the self-awareness of a contemporary drag performer. But old-movie spoofs, in and of themselves, grow stale, and questing artists with Busch’s imagination don’t settle for that. Under the cinema stereotypes lie their literary prototypes; under those, the mythic archetypes: The superficial or Disney version is only a modern American child’s point of entry to something darker, richer, and more universal. Some astonishing zigzags lie on the seemingly short, straight road from Anaheim to Bettelheim.
Busch’s new play, The Third Story, now being presented by Manhattan Class Company at the Lortel, is the simple tale of Peg (Kathleen Turner), an old gal who loves telling stories, and her son, Drew (Jonathan Walker), nurtured on her stories and now struggling to live his own. Both have worked as screenwriters in Hollywood, but it’s 1950 or thereabouts, and things have changed: She’s washed up, alcoholic, and maybe a potential blacklistee; he’s sick of the racket, eager for normality, and pursuing a dreary day job in Omaha while trying to restore connections to his father and his ex-wife. When Peg invades his home in quest of a writing partner, you can imagine that normality is the last thing Drew gets.
Instead, we get to watch while mom builds, with son’s half-reluctant help, a Dagwood-sandwiched pile of genre stories that melt into, and comment on, each other. A noirish gangster flick with a chic female mobster for flavor turns into a Douglas Sirk weeper when the mobsterette’s doting son brings home a shady spouse, then morphs yet again, into a cheesy sci-fi flick about a female scientist with a knack for cloning. And hovering behind it all, like a recollection of the immigrant heritage most Americans decline to remember, is Drew’s favorite bedtime story from childhood, Peg’s jumbled revision of her Russian grandmother’s old-country tale about a lovelorn princess who seeks out the witch Baba Yaga. Author Busch plays the lady mobster, naturally, and the witch; Walker doubles as the mobster son, Turner as the woman scientist’s German-accented guru.
This is rich food; not surprisingly, palates accustomed to the thin gruel that today’s theater too often serves up have grimaced at it. It’s also, let’s face the fact, hearty peasant cuisine—a thick stew, the chewy ingredients and peppery flavor of which may not appeal to fastidious tastes. Nor is it dished up with much elegance: The designs have been conceived serviceably but without panache; Carl Andress’s direction comes in, competently, just under the imaginative flair that gives such works sparkle.
The cast’s likability partly makes up for these shortfalls: Jennifer Van Dyck embodies the monomaniac scientist with crisp comic authority; Turner’s brassy energy is as delightful as her slurry diction is maddening (startlingly, it improves when she takes on the German accent). Walker is irresistibly charming as he lurches, like a bipedal shuttlecock, from lapsed screenwriter to Oedipally traumatized gangster; Sarah Rafferty makes his ambiguously wide-eyed doll and the woebegone Russian princess equally fetching. Busch’s definitive gift for female haughtiness, whether sporting gangster haute couture or a massive gray fright wig larger than himself, needs no critic’s confirmation.
The main joy of The Third Story is that its foolery embodies something substantive, making its occasional unevenness easy to bear. Like that good peasant food, it sticks to your ribs. Jung says somewhere that the psychic “work” accomplished by myths and fairy tales doesn’t occur on the story’s realistic, psychological, or allegorical level; it’s in the energy created as our minds move among the three. No wonder The Third Story feels like such an energizing event.
I wish I could say the same about You’re Welcome America, Will Ferrell’s Broadway evening, an 80-minute farewell ceremony flipping a final bird at the Bush presidency. Ferrell is often charming, sometimes funny, and extremely good at imitating Dubya. He has great audience rapport, and, at one or two points, he even comes within waving distance of what you might call satire. The trouble is the one you might expect from a TV personality: Dedicated to the image of Bush the man rather than the reality of Bush the president, the evening has the insubstantial quality of something taking place in two dimensions instead of three.
Ferrell’s basic joke is that the bane of our last eight years has been an ordinary dumb guy, all nitwit reactions and pop-media jargon like your ordinary TV viewer. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t explain George W. Bush’s drive to get elected, his agenda (or the agenda of those programming him), or the vast extent of the damage he did. Faced with such material, Ferrell has the problem of those who appear regularly on the air: They can’t cut too deep (depressing) or be too thorough (boring), and they can’t go too far into the negative lest they lose their own popularity. When Ferrell reaches, as he inevitably has to, the topic of American sons and daughters who’ve died in Iraq, he makes, and doesn’t puncture, a moment in which Bush appears to express sincere regret.
People who think the real George W. Bush actually gives a flying fuck about any human being other than himself, and maybe his immediate family, might find this touching, just as they might find the rest of You’re Welcome America gratifyingly daring and clever. But it isn’t. Like Bush’s doofus nice guy–ness, it’s a glittering surface, from which the dreadful things that have happened to us can be smoothly sloughed off. The people who find it gratifying might easily, eight years ago, have found George W. Bush “presidential.” Television has really destroyed Americans’ ability to perceive reality.