By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
What would a Charles Busch play be without hallmark elements like a satiric view of the movie industry and the various genre-driven movies of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, swipes at the blacklisting of Hollywood personalities, and the tortured relationships men have with suffocating moms?
Nor can we leave out the campy tone that informs every Busch show and the crucial cross-dressing roles the writer and actor always wrote for himself in each show, allowing the gender-bending Busch to appear in his own plays.
That means whenever a local theater takes on any of Busch’s off-Broadway hits like “Red Scare on Sunset,” “Psycho Beach Party” or “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” a game actor will need to embody the Busch transvestism – in character, of course.
Everything characteristic of Busch is well in evidence in Newport Theatre Arts Center’s new staging of “The Third Story.” Though the play first appeared in 2008, NTAC is the first Orange County venue to produce it.
It would be great to report that the staging is a blast – but alas, that’s not the case.
For years, director David C. Carnevale and partner Joey Baital ran the groundbreaking Theater Out in Santa Ana’s Artists Village, showcasing works by and/or about the LBGTQ community.
As his production of “The Third Story” includes recurring TO actors (let’s even say veterans) like Ben Green, Lori Kelley and Jules Ronquillo, stopping by NTAC for this show is like seeing a TO show. Adding a coastal feel are Cort Huckabone and Terra Taylor Knudson, well known from Long Beach Playhouse to the many Orange County theater companies along the coast.
The comedically skillful work of this quintet and NTAC newcomer Vita Muccia are the icing on a cake that’s, sad to say, flat. The fault lies not with the production, but with Busch, who comes up short in realizing the potential of his tantalizing concept.
The framing story concerns a screenwriter named Peg (Knudson), a salty-tongued, two-fisted drinker who helped build Hollywood in its heyday. Desperate to reboot her career as American society revs back up after WWII, she seeks out son Drew (Green), who has quit the movie rat race, moved to Omaha, Neb., and become a postal worker.
Peg proposes they collaborate on a screenplay. Even while rejecting his mom’s persistent overtures, Drew gets sucked into her brainstorming sessions. Her hybrid script involves mob czarina Queenie Bartlett (Huckabone), her hooligan son Steve (Green) and his gum-chewing moll Verna (Muccia).
A sci-fi B-movie is spoofed as Dr. Constance Hudson (Kelley), a beautiful but rather cold lady scientist, enacts cloning experiments in her lab. With the help of Russian colleague Dr. Rutenspitz (Knudson), the doctor has created a club-footed misfit human she calls Zygote (Jules Ronquillo).
The gangland and sci-fi stories soon intertwine when Queenie meets Zygote and realizes she may have herself cloned. She hires Constance to create a duplicate. Called “Queenie 2,” she’s as colorful and flamboyant as her source human but has a personality and motivations all her own, including a wistfully gentle persona.
The “third story” of the title is an amalgam of the Russian fairy tales Peg told Drew as a child. In this story thread, Vasalisa (Muccia), a beautiful young princess, is too shy to approach and meet the prince of her dreams, so she forges a pact with Baba Yaga (Ronquillo), an aging Russian witch who promises her self-confidence and a witty personality. All she has to do is give up her eternal soul.
The frame device of mother and son spinning various imaginary tales has an overarching purpose: In breathing life into their silver screen flights of fancy depicting parents and offspring struggling to resolve lifelong issues, they’ll presumably mend rifts that have plagued their own relationship for years.
Into this enjoyable yet dryly campy mash-up of his typical elements, Busch has spun some marvelously kooky scenarios and typically acid-dripping dialogue. Director Carnevale smartly doesn’t overplay the material, fully realizing the script’s spoofy, arch tongue-in-cheek tone, and lighting designer Josh Serrano cannily uses green lighting to cue us as to the imaginary characters and storylines.
All six players are superb, exhibiting adept comic timing – notably Green, Kelley and Ronquillo. Knudson’s Peg is enjoyably brassy. Green realizes the complexities of the character Drew and plumbs its depths, creating a credible, heart-rending portrayal and has fun sending up the stereotypical small-time movie hood with his New York B-movie tough guy persona Steve.
Ronquillo’s Zygote is a tortured soul both physically and psychologically. Huckabone etches both a tough, self-assured Ma Barker persona and touching vulnerability and almost ethereal frailty as Queenie 2.
Kelley’s Constance has comedic tunnel vision in pursuing her scientific goals, and Muccia nicely delineates two dissimilar characters – the saucy Verna and sad, wistful Vasalisa.
“The Third Story” relates a theme similar to what Sondheim did with “Into the Woods” decades earlier: That parent-child relationships are tortured. Much akin to the process of cloning, the script spins off multiple iterations of parent-child pairings that start with Peg and Drew and are then projected into the stories they create. In fact, noticing and identifying the myriad pairs as the stories progress is one of the most rewarding aspects the play has to offer
Despite the disappointing results, this “Third Story” is still well worth a look. It’s a joy to behold performances where the actors so obviously relish their work and even if they’re just the occasional glimmer, to see flashes of imaginative inspiration.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. March 25-April 17. Running time (including intermission): 2 hours, 35 minutes. Tickets: $20. Ticket purchase/information: (949) 631-0288, ntaconline.com.