Urban mythology has long held that to obtain the perfect slice of New York City real estate, one must scour obits in The New York Times for “vacancies,” and then, at an opportune moment, pounce.
Author and actor Charles Busch has found another way, which he jubilantly explores in “The Tribute Artist," a world premiere comedy written by and starring the gender-bending Tony nominee (“The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”). Directed by Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress, it’s just opened at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.
“The Tribute Artist” offers farceur Busch as an out-of-work female impersonator named Jimmy Nichols — don’t call Jimmy a “drag queen,” he insists; “I’m a celebrity tribute artist” — who senses an opportunity when snobby landlady Adriana (Cynthia Harris, divinely wry) dies in her sleep.
Adriana had been letting Jimmy stay at her Greenwich Village townhouse, gratis. If Jimmy can do a passable impersonation, and dispose of the woman’s body, he can sell the property and live off the proceeds. Jimmy’s aide-de-camp in this endeavor is best pal Rita (Busch’s longtime friend Julie Halston), a gay real estate broker.
Is the plan they’ve hatched foolproof, as they declare early on? Nah … this is a farce. So into the mix comes a gallery of nefarious manipulators, each with designs on the townhouse, or the money it could fetch, or worse, on one another. The rogues include Christina (Mary Bacon), who is the real Adriana’s niece and rightful townhouse heir, and Rodney (Jonathan Walker), Adriana’s long-lost flame, who is sussed out by Oliver (Keira Keeley), Christina’s transgender son (“Three cheers for Facebook,” Oliver notes).
The ensuing shenanigans offer Busch (“Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”) an opportunity to do what he does best: drop evil one-liners and offer paeans to actresses from another era — Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell and so on. The finest moments in “The Tribute Artist” come when he lobs arcane film quotes to the hilarious Halston, who may not be off base when she admonishes him at play’s end: “The majority of people in this room don’t know your references.”
Anna Louizos’ pine green townhouse parlor, where the action is centered, has the scent of old money, with its chandelier, liquor tray and lush daybed. Gregory Gale’s colorful caftans would do Diane von Furstenberg proud.
Multiple subplots about body parts, Jimmy’s developing feelings for Rodney, and a theft perpetrated by Christina slow things down in the second act. Still, “The Tribute Artist” is likely to appeal to anyone with an appetite for camp, and it’s an opportunity to see one of the masters of the trade in an intimate setting — it’s also the first time that theatergoers are seeing the venerable lead playing a male character on stage, albeit one impersonating a woman, a la “Tootsie” or “Some Like It Hot.”
“The Tribute Artist,” through March 16 at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. Tickets: $70. Call 212-279-4200 or visit primarystages.org.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn