Call Charles Busch a ‘Drag Legend,’ if We Must Use Labels

Call Charles Busch a ‘Drag Legend,’ if We Must Use Labels

Those plays were staged at Theater for the New City with an old-fashioned approach that feels at odds with much of New York’s theater scene — neither driven by the bottom line nor experimental. Doing a show just for fun: Imagine that!

Then again, he is a loyal man: to institutions like Theater for the New City; to the actors who are fluent in his writing’s cadences; to his collaborators (he has worked with set designer B.T. Whitehill since the mid-1980s); and, of course, to the Hollywood of the studio system — though his plays are immediately accessible even to those who can’t tell Katharine and Audrey Hepburn apart.

“He works with specific references, but his material also works if you don’t know them,” said Jennifer Van Dyck, whose roles in “Lily Dare,” her fifth Busch play, include Lily’s opera-singing daughter, a madam, a doctor’s wife and a police officer going undercover as a baroness. “He’s a storyteller, so you always have plot driving forward. And his language is very dense, very muscular, very rhythmic, very musical.”

Similarly, the characters Busch writes for himself are not impersonations: He tries to get into classic actresses’ heads rather than imitate their speech. After rehearsing a section in which Lily Dare confronts the man who caused her trip to jail, the soft-spoken Busch explained that it was a very Bette Davis style, but he was not doing her. “I’m intellectually approaching the scene, maybe, as she might have approached it,” he said. “I just love these movies so much that I don’t want to make fun of them; I just want to be in them.”

What Busch does in works like “Lily Dare” honors not so much specific performers as aesthetics and themes. “He loves a redemption tale,” said the actress Julie Halston, a friend and collaborator since the 1980s, in a phone interview. “He loves a bad girl who’s going, by the end, to become a more generous spirit. As hokey as it can be, it’s a formula that works because it can be very touching.”

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