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Theatre in Review: The Confession of Lily Dare (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Caption: Jennifer Van Dyck, Christopher Borg, Charles Busch. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Seeing The Confession of Lily Dare is rather like attending one of the pre-Code retrospectives held at the Film Forum: It's a kind of film festival for the stage -- a gloriously cockeyed one, to be sure -- and it provides playwright/star Charles Busch with his most deluxe vehicle of recent seasons. If, like me, you are in thrall to Busch's hilarious, and thoroughly knowledgeable, sendups of Golden Age potboilers, this one will be irresistible.

For those who don't regularly thrill to Turner Classic Movies, the term "pre-Code" refers to the brief period between the onset of talking pictures and the enforcement of the Production Code, Hollywood's self-policing set of standards designed to avoid the sharpened scissors of municipal and state censorship boards. For a few years (roughly 1929-34) anything went in terms of racy plots and dialogue. The so-called women's picture genre -- dominated by the likes of Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, and Kay Francis -- focused on heroines who sacrificed their virtue, usually for ailing spouses or needy offspring, while suffering extravagantly in deco penthouses packed to the rafters with designer gowns and glittering jewelry. (In such pictures, the wages of sin were surprisingly easy to take.) These put-upon dames often rose, fell, and rose again at record rates: In Blonde Venus (1932), Marlene Dietrich is, variously, hausfrau, nightclub star, kept woman, fugitive from justice, and the toast of Paris -- all for the sake of her ailing (and ungrateful) chemist husband.

The Confession of Lily Dare is pure distilled pre-Code melodrama; the title character's constantly whipsawing fortunes allow Busch to showcase a parade of costumes and personalities designed to fit each outrageous plot twist. When first seen, Lily is the most innocent of ingenues, recently sprung from a convent school in Switzerland and ensconced in her aunt's notorious Barbary Coast bordello. Dressed like Leslie Caron in Gigi, she is loaded with gumption: "I survived steerage, a train ride across the desert, and an hour in Topeka," she announces, filling that last clause with existential dread. Busch plays every cloying mannerism to the hilt; Lily is the ultimate Pollyanna, all smiles and tossed curls as she describes her favorite pastime, "the Happiness Game" -- swiftly becoming the staff pet.

Not for long, however. Thanks to the San Francisco earthquake, Lily ends up an unwed mother, living on the streets. But then fortune smiles on her, after a fashion, and soon she is packing them in at a local nightclub, billed as Mandalay, an enigmatic chanteuse. Swathed in ruffles, lace, and feathers, Busch vamps his audience with a Kurt Weill-type barroom ballad (by Tom Judson), delivered in his best heavy-lidded Dietrich manner -- all weltschmerz and slurred phrases. He also slips in a little Mae West: When an enthralled patron invites Lily/Mandalay to sit with him and his spouse, she replies, with a smirk and distinctive swing of the hips, "I don't usually meet the wives...except in court."

Life in this gilded cage is cut short when, taking the fall for her employer, Lily is indicted for jewel theft. She emerges from prison shorn of glamour and embittered ("I know what's waitin' for me freeside: nothin' but sneers and the brush-off") and is horrified to learn that her baby daughter has been given away to a wealthy Nob Hill couple. Bouncing back, she renames herself Treasure Jones and builds a chain of bawdy houses big enough to make Shaw's Mrs. Warren green with envy, all the while tracking from afar her daughter's career as an opera diva and socialite. We're in pure Barbara Stanwyck territory here, as evidenced by the way Busch, tangling with a predatory male troublemaker, bites into lines like "I may crawl in the same gutter as you, but I'm not a beast of prey!"

It's not telling too much to add that bullets will fly before Lily meets her ultimate fate, but whatever happens, Busch plays it for all it's worth, nailing the prevailing pre-Code acting style: every beatific glance, sob-ridden speech, and seductive murmur is present and accounted for. He's a great clown -- nobody else can deliver a line like "Aunt Rosalie, you were supposed to be in Seattle at a whorehouse convention" with such conviction -- but his performance is so hilarious precisely because the boundary between spoof and homage is thoroughly blurred.

Carl Andress, Busch's longtime director, has assembled a crack team of playmates for the occasion. Nancy Anderson channels an entire generation of peroxided, wisecracking dames as Lily's lifelong sidekick, a much-married, sometime working girl who serves as the play's jaded voice of experience. ("Now if all of you would kindly pardon me, I must put on my Little Bo Peep costume for my two o'clock with the Fire Chief.") Christopher Borg is virtually unrecognizable from scene to scene as Lily's first swain, a dissolute German baron, a gesticulating Italian maestro, and a pontificating Irish priest -- the latter turning up in the inevitable death row climax. Howard McGillin oozes elegance in the Warren William-Adolphe Menjou role of Lily's frequent nemesis. ("I'm what is known as a shady character from a once-prominent family who adds a veneer of class to whatever room he's in.") Kendal Sparks brings warmth and a way with a gag to the role of Lily's pianist and confidante. Jennifer Van Dyck runs the gamut as, among others, the imperious Aunt Rosalie ("Must everyone have a personality?") and Louise, Lily's grand-mannered diva-socialite daughter.

Andress has once again enlisted the services of set designer B. T. Whitehill, who supplies these exotic doings with a glittering nighttime view of the Golden Gate Bridge and a proscenium lined in a curtain made of purple plates and bottles. Jessica Jahn and Katherine Carr have, respectively, dressed and bewigged Busch in a manner worthy of a queen of the studio lot. Rachel Townsend has supplied everyone else with a full array of opera capes, glittering turbans, traveling suits, and a stunning La Traviata gown, among other finery. Kirk Bookman's lighting often cleverly mimics the expressionist looks of pre-Code films. Bart Fasbender's sound design swells with Hollywood strings as needed, along with a number of voiceover sequences, including one featuring a chorus of society cats who are scandalized by Lily's presence in a box at the opera.

It's worth noting that some of Busch's funniest bits are the most subtle: Check out the quiet look of horror on Lily's face when her lover envisions them raising a brood of twelve; a simple shift of his head is enough to signal an oncoming panic attack. What makes his best work distinctive -- and the reason that he can keep the laughs coming for two acts -- is his total identification with Lily and her many misadventures. Even at his most riotously transparent -- when the gulf between actor and role is most brazenly on display -- Busch believes in Lily Dare; more to the point, he understands her. Even better, I think he loves her. -- David Barbour

(29 January 2020)

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