NEW YORK, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Every Off-Broadway season there is one show that generates enough buzz to make it the hottest ticket in town, the show that everyone "in the know" wants to see.
This season it's "Shanghai Moon," the latest creation of Charles Busch, the reigning diva of camp theater since the death of Charles Ludlam of Theater of the Ridiculous fame more than a decade ago. Busch is also a contributor to the theatrical mainstream, having written "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," a recent Broadway comedy hit.
Busch stars in the Drama Dept. Company production of "Shanghai Moon" as Lady Sylvia Allington, a tough American broad who has become a lady by marrying an adoring British peer. On a visit to Shanghai with her husband, Lady Sylvia is caught up in a passionate affair with a handsome Chinese warlord that destroys her last vestige of respectability.
Off-Broadway has always been hospitable to plays featuring female impersonators, outrageous dialogue with witty wordplay, politically incorrect points of view, and plenty of double entendre. Busch's play, now in performance at the Greenwich House Theater in Greenwich Village, provides all that and more in the form of truly awful Oriental kitsch.
There is nothing amateurish about Busch in drag. He is a true master of a great theatrical tradition, and the rest of the cast is made up of top Broadway talents. They include Tony Award-winner B.D. Wong of "M. Butterfly" renown, Daniel Gerroll, a British-American actor of astounding versatility, and Sekiya Billman, a graduate of "Miss Saigon" on Broadway. There also are strong comic performances by Becky Ann Baker and Marcy McGuigan.
The play is an affectionate send-up of Hollywood movies of 1930s pre-Decency Code era which turned out dames like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Jean Harlow by the dozen. There also is a lot of Mae West in Busch's impersonation of a barely subdued sexpot, especially in his suggestive walk, his eye language, and particularly his way of mouthing racy words with fantastic twists of the lips that seem to exhale invisible steam.
Real steam is exhaled, however, by two twisting dragons posed like bookends on either side of the stage. They are just some of the wacky exotic props that make the staging of this show so delightful. It is set in the reception hall of the mansion of General Gong Fei (Wong), a veritable trophy room for the warlord's collection of rare vases, golden Buddhas and a priceless sculpture of a jade goddess.
It is the goddess statue that has brought Lord Allington (Gerroll) to Shanghai in the hope of acquiring it for the British royal collection. Gong Fei, with the aid of his sinister spiritual mentor, Dr. Wu (McGuigan), and his scheming concubine, Mah Li (Billman), soon has Allington rendered comatose by drugs and Lady Allington experimenting with opium in order to get them under his control.
For a brief time, Gong Fei's intentions are thrown off track by the machinations of Mah Li and Mrs. Carroll (Baker), who runs a house of ill repute on the Shanghai waterfront, and an opium runner, Pug Talbot (also played by Gerroll), who turns out to have married Lady Sylvia when she was a teen living in Chicago's South Side and never divorced. But in the end, the general gets his comeuppance with six slugs from Lady Sylvia's silver revolver.
The final scene, a spoof on every British courtroom melodrama ever filmed, has Lord Allington on trial for Gong Fei's murder. But Lady Sylvia is able to outfox the prosecution and win her husband's acquittal, only to be told that from now on they are going to live a quiet, secluded life on the Allington country estate. The audience is left imagining how their heroine will circumvent this little bump in the road to fulfillment.
Carl Andress' direction is inspired by good taste, never allowing his cast to resort to off-color smirkiness although this would have been easy to do in a play that calls for the branding of the heroine's derriere with her lover's chrysanthemum crest. B.T. Whitehill's sets are sumptuous in a modest way, and dimly illuminated to create a sense of mystery by lighting designer Kirk Bookman.
Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have designed costumes that are beautifully detailed, using authentic fabrics for the Chinese gowns. Their best creation is a seductive temple dancer's costume for Lady Sylvia's attempt to imitate sacred choreographic movements in the hootchy-kooch style that passed for Oriental dancing in Western American dance halls. It's one of a hilarious evening's funniest moments.