By ERIC GRODE
Charles Busch and Julie Halston have a lot to talk about.
Whether it's the dozen or more shows Busch has written for his madcap muse---"I've lost track, but this is roughly the 15th one," he says---or the untold number of pop-culture artifacts the two have consumed and absorbed during that time, they have accumulated a lifetime's worth of camp arcana to discuss.
Their latest joint project, The Tribute Artist, is at once completely in keeping with their previous pairings and enticingly different. Just as he has done since Vampire Lesbians of Sodom 30 years ago, Busch has created a juicy pair of female roles for himself and Halston, once again steeped in a wry appreciation of Hollywood days of yore. But Tribute, which is in previews at 59E59 in a Primary Stages production, deviates from the others in one crucial respect: Instead of spotlighting Busch as an actual woman, it features him as a female impersonator who takes on the persona of his recently deceased landlady in an attempt to obtain her West Village brownstone.
"It's a very different kind of piece for us," Busch says. "For one thing, I can be the aggressor as opposed to the terrified woman."
Halston, for her part, plays a role more typically suited to her go-for-broke comedic style: "I play a hapless lesbian realtor, not that those three words automatically go together." Both say their characters---an impoverished drag queen and a universally reviled realtor with a drinking problem---serve as cautionary tales of a sort, examples of who the two of them might have become had life taken a different turn.
Much of the comedy in Tribute comes from the various roadblocks (among them the landlady's resentful daughter and her dissolute former lover) that threaten to spoil the co-conspirators' plan. And while both Busch is a longtime fan of comedy capers, he says he found himself scaling back those complications as he wrote the play.
"My first instinct was to go in a more farcical direction and add a Polish maid," he says. "But then I decided that the characters were interesting enough to just let them sort it out."
He has his friendship with Halston to thank for at least one of those interesting characters. When the two aren't working on a new play together, she says, Busch is surreptitiously accumulating material for their next piece. "I'm a pretty heightened situation in real life," she says, "so sometimes he will give me lines based on things I've said to him in real life."
"Oh, whole monologues!" Busch corrects her.
"Usually," Halston continues, "when I go into rehearsals, I sort of recognize what I'm saying."
However, that doesn't mean she says it quite the way Busch or anyone else might expect her to, at least not until the very end of rehearsals. "Early on, while I'm still kind of finding my way around the piece," she says, "Charles does me better than me."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by James Leynse