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Charles Busch ‘lily Dare’ Heavy Off-broadway Life, And That’s A Good Thing



Actor-playwright-drag-performer extraordinaire Charles Busch has gathered a cult following in the New York theater community ever since he broke through with his play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Limbo Lounge in 1984, a satirical battle to the death (or undeath as it were) by the titular undead biblical ladies. That following has followed him from the Limbo Lounge to the Provincetown Playhouse and other Greenwich Village venues. Some even ventured north of 14th Street when he had his Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, and they now come back when his shows run on 59th Street or other West Side venues.

All the while, however, Busch has remained true to his East Village artistic roots, and he has thrived by channeling his passion for old Hollywood movies and the larger-than-life actresses who starred in them into hysterically funny plays that have a moving throughline. Busch is an old-fashioned hyphenate: He does not just write plays, he takes the lead female role. On stage, he often seems like the long-lost child of Eve Arden and Joan Rivers—and Marlene Dietrich and Mae West…and probably seven others. He is mutt and a chameleon with a love of low-brow humor and an acute aesthetic intelligence to make first-class entertainments.

Like his mentor and idol, Charles Ludlam, who ran the late-great Ridiculous Theatrical Company from 1967 until his untimely death in 1987, Busch immerses himself in camp humor then creates his plays. While Ludlam’s plays are more anarchic, Busch’s are usually sympathetic, even nostalgic looks at those old movies and their strong-willed heroines. They are at once parodies and homages.

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch share a mother-daughter moment in “Lily Dare.”
Carol Rosegg

This is what separates Busch, as well as others in the ridiculous tradition like Ludlam and Kenneth Bernard. “Someone else could have taken this same subject matter and done it strictly on a camp level—with all the dramatic moments underlined and spoofed—and people could enjoy that thoroughly, I guess. But that’s not what I do. I’ve always enjoyed kind of enjoyed a roller-coaster of tone.

“Just because something is an homage to a movie genre doesn’t mean it can’t be genuinely moving and genuinely touching.”

He points to the classic comedy Some Like It Hot, which “is such a brilliant comedy but Marilyn Monroe anchors it with this vulnerable soulfulness that pierces though the forest and is very moving.”

Reviewing the Situation

The results can’t really be argued with. Even though Busch can always be counted on to satisfy his base, he does think about the reviews, which for Lily Dare have been positive across the board.

“It’s been five years since I had a play reviewed. So I am very relieved. I don’t know whether I am gun shy or what, but I’d done a series of plays down in the East Village that I intentionally never let reviewers in. We all had a very nice time. In this case, I had to let them [the critics] in, and it was very nerve-wracking, but we seem to have emerged unscathed.”

But reviews that drop words like “delicious” and “irresistible” still send his playwright’s heart aflutter.

His one great fear is critics getting together and doing a think piece. “You’re always in trouble when they do a think piece,” he says laughing. “A think piece always ends up being about how I’m sort of redolent of times gone by.”

No danger of that here. For now, anyone with a taste for pre-Code tearjerkers and some newfangled, old-fashioned East Village camp or just some classic ridiculous theater, should try to catch The Confession of Lily Dare at the Cherry Lane Theatre while you can. It’s no spoiler to say that Lily’s in a pickle, a pickle that only a relish salesman with a hot dog concession could love, but you’ll eat it up.

The Confession of Lily Dare is playing through March 5 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, for more information go to



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