It’s unfair almost to the point of cheating to try and evaluate Charles Busch in the signature role of Angela Arden, the protagonist of Die Mommie Die!. First a play in Los Angeles, then a successful indie film, now an Off-Broadway play with a bigger budget, Die is high camp, hearkening back to the women’s pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. And Busch, the father of the whole operation, is all woman.
Carl Andress directs this well-honed machine, in which Arden, a has-been singer in a loveless marriage to producer Sol Sussman (Bob Ari) carrying on an affair with Tony Parker (Chris Hoch). Angela opts to murder her husband (in a hilariously foul sequence), but happiness still does not come her way. She must contend with daughter Edith (Ashely Morris), hopelessly devoted to her father; son Lance (Van Hansis), who loves his mother but loves cross-dressing and hallucinogens more, and maid Bootsie Carp (an invaluable Kristine Nielsen).
The supporting cast is first-rate, with Morris and Hansis in particular doing riotous (and disciplined) work. Morris plays it straight while Hansis plays a more colorful role that ups the camp actor, but both are letter-perfect – and Morris and Busch share a bit of business that must be seen to be believed. I would keep my eye on both performers. But this is Busch’s play. His delivery and every gesture is impeccable, and Die revolves around Angela’s entrances and exits. It is not just a “drag” role either. Busch understands every minute of his character’s life: her achievements, her longing, her pain, and creates a fully-realized woman amidst all the zaniness at play. His work is so professional and yet so fun it is downright instructional.
This production, though it mocks the styles of films starring Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward and Gloria Swanson, actually works better than the 2003 film version, because its over-the-top nature demands a bigger venue than an intimate genre such as film can create. Costume designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case help out in that area as well with some wonderful creations, as does Michael Anania’s set.
Most people opt to disregard camp as a worthy subgenre, but Die proves that a carefully honed package can be considered art no matter what. Just because a play is full of enemas, who says it can’t be full of heart too?