The Third Story
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 29, 2009
Charles Busch explains his show's title to the audience in a playwright's note in the program: "After two false starts, it's often the third story that takes off." And Peg, the screenwriter who is one of The Third Story's protagonists, also explains it:
I told you the third story is often the best. The first is the genesis of an idea, but usually completely off the track. The second is when you go overboard with flights of imagination. The third story is when you return to the truth.
I wondered why Busch felt compelled to repeat in the Playbill what he tells us on stage. But though Peg and her collaborator (and son) Drew do eventually arrive at a "third story" for the movie they're trying to write together, to say that it takes off or that it is somehow "the truth" overstates the case significantly.
Busch's concept here is certainly ambitious. Peg, a silent film writer a la June Mathis who is now (the play is set in the 1940s) washed up, has come to Omaha to visit her son. They used to write films together, but he has recently escaped his domineering mother's clutches to live in his father's hometown, where he works as a postman. He says he's satisfied with his new life, but no one believes that for a moment, and he quickly allows Peg to bully him into working together again.
The story they weave—which is enacted for us as they conjure it—concerns another mother and son. Queenie Bartlett is the matriarch and brains of a crime syndicate (Ma Barker by way of Joan Crawford, let's say). Steve, her son, has taken up with a blonde bimbo named Verna. Queenie opposes their imminent nuptials; perhaps Verna isn't who she seems to be. Because Peg and Drew are preoccupied with a fairy tale that's kind of like the Russian "Firebird" story, they make their characters become preoccupied with it too (and we see it enacted on the stage in brief transitional bursts throughout the evening). That tale of metamorphosis leads our screenwriters to arrive at their "third story," tagging a science fiction plot onto the gangster flick. Now Queenie gets involved with Dr. Constance Hudson, who is on the verge of perfecting a kind of cloning process that eventually allows a second Queenie to be created. Constance and Steve fall in love. All manner of plot complications are introduced. Bonds between the various mothers and sons are tested and examined. (Constance is also a mother, more or less: an early botched experiment resulted in the creation of Zygote, who is essentially Frankenstein's Monster made in a test tube.)
Busch does sort the muddle out, but it's not particularly persuasive or satisfying storytelling, and finally the proceedings don't seem to point to anything except a middling-good time for Busch (in drag as Queenie, Queenie's clone, and Baba Yaga, the witch in the Russian fairy tale) and the rest of the actors. Foremost among these is Kathleen Turner, who post-Virginia Woolf has learned to dominate a stage even when she's competing with the likes of a Charles Busch in his own play; she definitely steals this show, creating a rich and interesting character in Peg beyond what the script really supports. Scott Parkinson as Zygote and Jennifer Van Dyck as Constance more than hold their own; Jonathan Walker (Steve and Drew) and Sarah Rafferty (Verna and the Princess in the fairy tale) have the least interesting things to do.
I was distracted by odd details in the '40s movie parody, such as the fact that the Queenie double is referred to as a "zombie" (which she's not; and which wasn't a word in popular currency at that time); other, frequently coarse references in the "screenplay" (such as the mention of a "phallus") don't scan either, and they aren't particularly funny, so I was surprised that they hadn't been deleted or fixed. The facts of Peg and Drew's lives don't make a whole lot of sense either. In both worlds of The Third Story, the particular icons being parodied—if indeed any specific ones are targeted—eluded me.
The result is an evening that's not unpleasant, but not particularly memorable and, alas, certainly not especially funny. Perhaps a fourth story is in order...