“It should all be bigger than life,” Bette Davis once said about acting and Hollywood; the “bigger than life” description certainly applies to Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!, a rollicking homage to the thrillers of the sixties starring female stars of yesteryear. Like most of Busch’s works, this one also features a strong leading woman played by a man in drag; as he did in The Divine Sister in 2014 and Psycho Beach Party in 2015 (both at Short North Stage), Doug Joseph dons drag once again to hilarious effect as Angela Arden, the devilish woman at the heart of this show.
Die, Mommie, Die! premiered in Los Angeles in 1999, was adapted into a film in 2003, and then opened off-Broadway for a limited run in 2007, all starring Charles Busch as Angela Arden. You see, Angela is a former musical star who is down on her luck; ever since her sister Barbara’s suicide fifteen years earlier, her career has floundered, her marriage to film producer Sol Sussman has filled with acrimony, her daughter Edith has grown to hate her, and her illicit affairs have become a matter of public record. Seeking the help of her latest conquest, well endowed TV actor Tony Parker, Angela is determined to make a comeback, and she isn’t above murdering anyone who stands in her way.
Doug Joseph’s starring turn as Angela Arden has more heart than one might expect, and he brings a likability to the part that works to his advantage; the audience (myself included) forgives Mr. Joseph for most anything, including murder, adultery, and an outlandish wardrobe (his costume changes are greeted with applause). When Mr. Joseph isn’t on the stage, his character is still the center of attention, and the audience is held in suspense awaiting his return. His facial straps (used by the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner in the days before Botox and plastic surgery) are slightly visible below his ears, disappearing under his wig, a funny touch to those of us in the know to discover.
Mr. Joseph is surrounded by some very talented scene-stealers, including Ralph E. Scott as husband Sol Sussman; Josie Merkle as Bootsie, the maid; and Nick Lingnofski as boyfriend Tony Parker. Mr. Scott has a grimace and bird-like squeal (representing his character’s chronic constipation) that never fails to elicit laughter. Ms. Merkle is spry and pushy as the maid secretly in love with the man of the house, and who has more than Lysol in her bag of tricks. Mr. Lingnofski is perhaps the biggest threat as he prances around and sneers, performing with a kind of direct intensity that is perfect in keeping with the mood while also being oddly sexy. The cast is rounded out by the capable Erin Mellon as daughter Ethel, who is queasingly solicitous with her father Sol, jumping into his arms and humping him as he arrives in the doorway, and who has probably the best line in the play while canoodling with Mr. Lingnofski: “I will pet your dingle, but I intend to remain intact!” Johnny Robison is also on hand as Lance, Angela’s gay, idiot son.
Director Edward Carignan certainly seems to understand the inherent comedy of this material and is adept at allowing it to breathe; a lesser director would’ve pushed things too far into forceful farce, limiting its audience to only the gay cognescenti. What’s great about this production is that it can be enjoyed by anyone open for some raunchy fun, no prior knowledge of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis required. Mr. Carignan is also responsible for Angela’s form-fitting dresses (my favorite is a red number that looks like a ladybug) and one notably shiny muumuu with a matching headscarf.
Bill Pierson’s set replicates a living room circa 1967 in Hollywood as if it has remained shrinkwrapped and forgotten – until now. From the vintage spiked clock to the gray brick and stone-patterned walls and the turntable cabinet unit, everything looks a little pre-“The Brady Bunch,” which is exactly correct. There is even a small reel-to-reel deck used to record Angela’s big confession about her past, though Erin Mellon proudly holds up an empty reel as being the recording in question. It’s a small but notable flaw when so much of the set and props are just right.
Rob Kuhn’s lighting is striking, most notably during Angela’s LSD trip when rotating bold hues often separate the actors from the background, and his technical direction involving the many sound effects and music cues are perfectly timed. Along with the rather elaborate set and limited space in The Green Room, Die, Mommie, Die! feels like a special event, the stadium seating so close to the action that there is no bad seat. There is a support beam in the middle of the viewing area, but even it didn’t prove to be a problem as it was easy to see past from where we were seated.
Die, Mommie, Die! is just the kind of irreverent, hilarious play that is the perfect counterpoint to anyone who thinks seeing plays is boring or corny; this is two hours of in-your-face fun, sometimes so “wrong” that I found myself laughing and looking away in embarrassment. One doesn’t have to be familiar with films like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Big Cube (1969), both of which are obvious inspirations, for Die, Mommie, Die! to be wildly entertaining, as this production stands firm and proud in flashy red pumps.
***/ out of ****
Die, Mommie, Die! continues through to February 21st in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/468