What we did for love? Try what we do for real estate. We wheel, we deal, we bribe, we connive, we play straight, we play gay, and we count ourselves lucky to live here at all. The housing market is murder, a figurative complaint that veers toward the literal in two new shows: Charles Busch’s cross-dressed comedy The Tribute Artist and Toni Schlesinger’s moody docudrama The Mystery of Pearl Street.
Busch has made a career of sweetly outrageous farces that force him to don dress and wig. At 59, he still makes a damn good dame. In this uneven Primary Stages show, which I might retitle (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Lease, Love, and Understanding, he stars as Jimmy, a male gender illusionist. Fired from the Vegas revue in which he impersonated both Marilyn Monroe and Pearl Bailey (Busch spares us the blackface), he has retreated to his rented room in the tony Village townhouse owned by former fashionista Adriana (Cynthia Harris).
But when Adriana expires after a night of revelry, Jimmy and his broker pal Rita (the uproarious Julie Halston) hatch a dastardly plan: Jimmy will impersonate Adriana just long enough for Rita to sell the townhouse. But when an unexpected heir (Mary Bacon in a thankless role), her transgender son (Keira Keeley), and a conniving ex (Jonathan Walker) arrive, the deal goes badly awry — so badly that various human remains soon crowd the fridge.
Busch has a way of wrapping audiences around his manicured fingers. Only a grouch (and Vladimir Putin) would begrudge him his antics and wardrobe. Still, The Tribute Artist hardly stands with his best work. Some of his quirks — the constant illusion to classic film, the senseless lust — have staled and, under the hectic direction of Carl Andress, the wheels of the plot spin as though someone’s jammed the works with a stiletto.
The narrative idles for much of the middle while Bacon delivers many a whining monologue and Walker menaces ineffectually. Then mysteries resolve too quickly or not at all. While some one-liners land with the brio of a ski jump champ, others belly flop. And yet Halston achieves the impossible: She makes a broker sympathetic. Someone make sure Rita gets her commission.
Does a rent dispute lie at the dark heart of The Mystery of Pearl Street? A longtime Voice columnist, Schlesinger wrote a popular column about how New Yorkers live, “their cat, their sofa, all that.” So her interest was piqued when she saw an article concerning the disappearance of two inhabitants of a Pearl Street loft.
Schlesinger began an investigation and now presents her research. Styled as a film noir, the Dixon Place show, directed by Will Detlefsen, centers on a writer (Schlesinger) who offers her findings to an unspeaking man (Carl Fengler) while a baleful waitress (Heather Thiry) looms.
The material is genuinely fascinating, as is Schlesinger’s brand of sinister, geeky absurdism. But the playwright seems strangely uncomfortable onstage, which is odd, as she’s confidently presented many charming puppetry pieces. Perhaps the material provokes anxiety as it suggests that any of us might be done away with should we run afoul of an unscrupulous landlord, a lawless neighbor. However diligent Schlesinger’s inquiry, the show leaves certain questions unanswered: Whatever became of that loft? And is it available for rent?