Anything Goes

    Maybe it’s in his disturbingly convincing performance as a Slavic gypsy or the mink-swathed ’50s mobster Queenie Bartlett — but at the end of the night, director/primadonna Charles Busch’s latest play seems an overdone, cat’s-cradle effort to justify his not-so-secret whimsy for kitten heels. But did we really expect anything less from the man who brought us “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”?

    Now in its fourth week at La Jolla Playhouse, “The Third Story” misses many a sequin in repatching the campy glitter of “Sodom.” Somewhere between mad science experiments, lipstick shoot-’em-ups and country folklore, we lose interest in what it’s all adding up to and resign to a state of dizzied (albeit entertained) bafflement.

    Indeed, the story here is actually a story-in-a-story-in-a-story, held down by a few spare thematic anchors and knotted loosely with vaudeville one-liners. Every flick of Busch’s flamboyant wrist introduces another conflict, another costume change, another a-ha climax until the once-giddy hyperbole is sucked of all initial shock value, and we’re left with a theater full of stylized, fictional clutter.

    The opening story plants us far, far away in an enchanted woods, where Princess Vasalisa (Rebecca Levy) meets drag-witch Baba Yaga (Busch), who grants the pathologically shy girl a socially-endowed identical twin to seduce the town prince. The plan goes that once a wedding date is set, the double will vanish and Vasalisa will be left with her tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

    Cut to 1950s Nebraska. Washed-up screenwriter Peg (Mary Beth Peil) tries to convince her son — a self-proclaimed postal worker decidedly retired from Hollywood — to enter a partnership that will allow him to take one last stab at lighting up the silver screen. Aware of his mother’s generally selfish motives, Drew (Jonathan Walker) ignores her manic sales pitch.

    Their name-dropping banter (“Mom, do you have anything in your past besides slugging Ginger Roberts?”) persists until Peg digs up one of Drew’s old plays. The discovery prompts a rapid unfolding of potential plotlines, crammed with desert murder scenes and sci-fi flair.

    In concurrent reality, we have already begun to witness the fast-unraveling product of Peg’s zealous brainstorming — a “third story” hinged on chic mobster Bartlett (Busch), whose most threatening adversary is the terminal cancer wracking her hefty figure. With couture poise, Bartlett asserts that she must find a way to protect her son Steve (Walker) from the feds after her death, since the poodle-prim girly-boy obviously can’t protect himself.

    Only one person can help this femme fatale: her morphine dealer Zygote (Scott Parkinson), a botched product of human cloning. With “shit for brains” (literally, as he hides an accidental anus under his toupee). Zygote directs Queenie to his maker — tough-gal scientist Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck) ­— who, after learning of the dying woman’s dilemma, agrees to use her experimental life’s work to forge Queenie a bona fide twin. That is, until she learns of her client’s criminal background, and rejects the groundbreaking, scientific prospect on grounds of ethical conduct. This unleashes a whirlwind of sheisty behavior, culminating in —
    Well, we’ll stop the rollercoaster there. After all, it would be wrong to strip the final surprise from a play so dependent on nail-biters. Of course, amid the many stilted cliffhangers and two-dimensional scene shifts, it becomes apparent that “Third Story” is framed by some underlying moral about a mother’s love. Or twins. Or girl power. Or maybe the impossibility of duplicating a mother’s love — especially when she packs a handheld machine gun in her purse.

    Apart from the deeper message, a handful of clumsy performances keep audiences in slumped confusion at a moment intended to set them on seat’s edge. Though the opener’s Russian fairytale does double trouble with childlike whimsy, it teeters on stiff quips that protract an already lengthy discourse.

    And speaking of contrived, the mother-son soap opera in Nebraska is all a game of intellectual tug-of-war, chock with so much eye-rolling and snappy comebacks that we feel like spanking them when they finally reach reconciliation.

    It’s not all watch-checking, though. The clutter is at least an artful mess, and a few characters do shine through. Zygote’s faithfully exaggerated defects alight an equally twisted nature (“I’m a tough fit — maybe it’s that pesky seventh nipple”). Dr. Hudson balances his twitchy self-loathing with a cold reservation that only briefly touches on humanity.

    The heavily streamlined minimalism of the set design and cartoonish costumes also indulge the eye, often the only theatrical elements that keep us locked into the picture. Like dressing the Jetsons in runway Chanel, a panache of colors and bold lines saturate otherwise cloudy dialogue.

    It’s hard to say what went through Busch’s head when he first drafted “The Third Story.” A drag queen confronting her Oedipus complex? A Hollywood romance starring fashionable zombies? Whatever the case, Busch’s funhouse imagination never fails to be amusing, if at times inaccessible.

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