She seeks only to please and protect — suffering and sacrificing, often in silence, to ensure the ones she loves will lead better lives. So why do you push her away?
If that’s the Mother’s Day shade that gets thrown in your direction through direct conversation, subtext or those familiar dagger eyes, L.A. Theatre Works has a could-be-worse scenario sure to serve as a soothing balm for hapless victims — and hungry voyeurs — of family dysfunction.
The nation’s leading producer of audio theatre is once again teaming up with legendary drag artist, cabaret performer, playwright, and pre-code-to-’60s cinema aficionado Charles Busch, for radio-style live tapings of his camp classic, “Die, Mommie, Die!”—branded by Works as “DIE MOMMIE DIE.”
“Angela Arden wants to be free of her suffocating marriage to film producer Sol Sussman,” read the promotional materials. “What better way than poison! Distraught by her father’s death and convinced of her mother’s guilt, Edith Sussman plots to get the truth out of Angela using any means necessary.”
From its 1999 premiere at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse to a 2003 movie adaptation to a 2007 run at New York’s New World Stages to this upcoming Works gig, Busch happily noted he’s “played Angela Arden on film, stage and radio. I just gotta figure out a way of bringing it to TV.”
First things first, though, as the preternaturally prolific writer/performer adapts, for audio, “one of the greatest and most challenging female roles in the history of the American Theater,” according to a highly respected source (Busch himself, in a cheeky Facebook posting promoting this latest incarnation).
“It’s an odd thing,” says Busch, in anticipation of the May 17-19 run at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater. “We do it in front of mics, with a sound effects table on stage, and in front of a live audience. You have to play to your audience, and also the microphone. So it’s an interesting challenge. … I had to go through the script and adapt it ‘for radio.’ In approaching it that way, it got my imagination going, and I came up with dialogue, new lines that do not have anything to do with radio. I wish I thought of them 20 years ago.”
The lady knows of what she speaks, when speaking of adaptation. This is not Busch’s first rodeo with Works’ “Live in Performance” series, having directed “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which “was interesting for me, because I’m not really a stage director. So it was a nice way to dip my toe into directing and not have to do full staging.”
That 2007 production had JoBeth Williams and Richard Kind among its cast. In 2013, playing the title role, Busch adapted his nun-tastic romp, “The Divine Sister,” for Works audio audiences, and, in 2009, played Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
As for his return to the role of Angela Arden, Busch said the character is “very much in line with so many of my heroines … I’ve played different kinds of women over these decades,” he says, “but they [usually] have things in common,” such as coming from “humble origins and pulling herself up to a higher station. And often, the women I play have a certain kind of ‘surface tough glamour,’ but an underlying vulnerability.”
The Arden character handily distinguishes herself, however, as the one who managed to gobsmack Busch, the writer, during a 2003 Sundance screening of “Mommie.”
“I was sitting there,” he says, “and all of a sudden, I realized how emotionally autobiographical it was. When you strip it of the comic melodrama and the parody of Bette Davis/Joan Crawford ’60s suspense movies, it’s essentially the story of a woman who’s raising her dead sister’s children, and just wants them to love her. That’s the story of my aunt, who raised me.”
That realization left Busch, “shaken, like somebody had thrown a bucket of water on me. … Often, I believe, the writer himself isn’t even aware of where it spins from.” Armed with this insight, “when I play that part again, it just feeds that.”
Busch is dining out these days, on the notion of playing with the ensemble that’s been assembled. Willie Garson (Stanford on “Sex and the City”) plays Arden’s husband, making his debut as a member of a Busch-led stage ensemble—and Ruth Williamson’s presence as a “Mommie” cast member is destiny fulfilled. Busch called Williamson “a wonderful actress I’ve worked with numerous times,” noting, “I had written the role of the housekeeper, Bootsie, for her.” During its 1999 LA premiere, Williamson was in New York. “Years later,” Busch says, “when we did it in New York, she was already living in L.A.”
Stars further align this time around, with Mark Capri in the role of Tony Parker, which he originated.
“He was so perfect,” Busch says. “I hesitate saying somebody was the best portrayal of a character, but it’s certainly my favorite, so I was thrilled he was able to play it again, 20 years later.”
Busch says having these prior relationships creates “a shorthand, where you can move fast” — good news, since the four-performance run will be rehearsed and mounted, so to speak, within a matter of days.
“It sounds kind of saccharine, but I truly mean it. My whole career has been based on love — the fact that I often play characters based on old movies I love, and that I work with the same directors,” he says. “In this case, Carl Andress. We’ve done dozens of plays together. I’ve known him since he was 23 and I adore him. And I often write plays for specific people I love, and want to be with. So it’s interesting. My career isn’t necessarily built around just professional ambition.”
Busch has long maintained his affinity for limited runs that court neither press coverage nor extensions. Nonetheless, he says, in a 2018 interview with this reporter via The Villager, “It just so happens twice, we have actually transferred these plays commercially (“Shanghai Moon” and “The Divine Sister”) … One could think it’s sort of a dotty thing to do, because we put a lot of effort into these … honestly, there’s never any ulterior motive or agenda.”
Bereft of agenda, an irresistible opportunity recently came knocking, when New York’s Primary Stages approached Busch to be part of its 35th anniversary season, by revisiting, for an eight-week run in early 2020, what he says “might be my favorite role I’ve ever written for myself” — the title character in “The Confession of Lily Dare.”
Having made its debut last year via a 24-performance run at New York’s Theater for the New City, Busch says he “wanted to see if we can have a lot of fun with the outrageous conventions of these old (pre-code) movies, but also get the audience to have the same emotional reaction as (one might when) watching those old tearjerker movies.”
“Lily Dare” hit that mark well, as this reporter can attest to. “I was thrilled,” Busch says. “You could hear people sniffling and reaching for the Kleenex. I’ve got a little bit of that in ‘DIE MOMMIE DIE.’ ”
It’s interesting, he says, “that no matter how we might think we’re so sophisticated and post-modern, the old archetypes and conventions can still move an audience.”