Beneath the veneer of Puritan piety and respectability, there's a rich substratum of lust, greed, and prurience in our cultural life -- and of course, a vein of violence that's as American as cherry pie. That's the message at the core of Charles Busch's lovingly satiric ode to Hollywood hypocrisy, Die Mommie Die, now at Duke Energy Theatre through Oct. 26.
Tolerance, diversity, and outré kinkiness are all yearning to breathe free in this hilarious cri de coeur. That's why screen icon Angela Arden shares her Beverly Hills estate with constipated studio mogul Sol Sussman, a Jew who sports a thick New York accent and spouts Yiddish with every onset of crisis, stomach cramps, or gas.
Such a husband for such a Hollywood princess would only happen in real life -- never in the plush Hollywood melodramas Sol and his brethren bankrolled in the '50s and '60s. The Sussmans' sex-crazed daughter and their flaming gay son? More inconvenient truths that wouldn't invade the silver screen or Leave-It-to-Beaverland for decades to come.
Queen City Theatre Company is bringing Mommie to Charlotte with a near-perfect cast -- and a more consistent sense of cinema style than the version I saw off-Broadway last January, starring Busch himself as Angela. They have Hank West filling Busch's gowns, pumps and sneakers, truly a rare treasure. Queen City artistic director Glenn Griffin fills the performance with pregnant pauses and noble posturing. West doesn't merely wear Stuart Williams' fine set of costumes, he resolutely models them. Nor does Angela adore her husband, children or even her illicit lover Tony Parker with half the ardor she reserves for the camera lens.
With a giant secret lurking in her past, Arden is hoping to embark on a new cabaret tour to resuscitate her faded film career. She wants to have her beefcake too in Parker, a one-time TV heartthrob who now serves as her trim tennis coach. But the wily Sol is on to her, inflicting the ultimate vengeance: He stops her credit cards! Let the games begin.
What the Queen City production doesn't have that I saw at New World Stages last winter -- aside from a New York budget -- is the fiendish glee that Busch and company brought into the spotlight. Yes, the energetic Jes Dugger as Edith Sussman loves her daddy Sol with an adolescent fervor that crosses over into the terrain of neurosis. But the off-Broadway Edie jumped upon her dear dada the moment he entered the front door and dry-humped him to ecstasy, jubilantly transporting us to a cesspool of obscenity.
And when Angela reamed an elephantine suppository up Sol's ass on West 50th Street, it was with a gleeful, rhythmic orgiastic sadomasochism that yields visibly to dainty politeness in its current resurrection at Spirit Square. I'd rather see a "Take that, Mayor McCrory" layered on.
My only other substantial complaint is that sound designers Griffin and Kristian Wedolowski didn't fill some of those deathless pauses with portentous organ chords or the like. Joe Rux and his pillow gut are marvelous as the dyspeptic Sol, Matt Kenyon unites spoiled petulance with pyromaniacal craziness as the young gay Lance Sussman, and Jorja Ursin works all of her gargoyle charms on Bootsie, the Sussmans' schizoid maid.
Perhaps worried that he might knock West off his high heels, Steven Martin takes a little off the aggressive machismo I would have liked in Tony Parker. As for Dugger, she and Griffin need to find sharper ways to channel Edie's energy rather than merely burning it.
I'm sure the subtle struggles West was having with his lines back in the show's opening weekend are ancient history by now. Surely, he is channeling Bette Davis, Mama Rose, and Norma Desmond without the slightest intrusion of white noise. Don't miss it.