May 13, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Die, Mommie, Die!," Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, May 10-20, 2018
In Brief: A dream cast brings Charles Busch’s wacky, wicked, insane mash-up to life on the Kirk Douglas stage with thundering comic gusto. The season’s funniest play, bar none, west or east of the San Andreas Fault. Get your tickets now! The run ends in a few days.
In Die, Mommie, Die!, playwright Charles Busch takes aim at the hammy histrionics and conventions of 1940s noir films and tormented movie heroines, blends in heaping portions of screwball gay tropes and 1960s pop culture references from the Rat Pack to the Pepsi Generation, and whips the whole thing into a delicious, comic frenzy that will have you laughing from the play’s first line to its last.
The Sussmans at home. Pat Towne (left) and Drew Droege in "Die, Mommie, Die!" (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
That the 20-year-old play is just as riotously entertaining today as it was when it debuted is a testament to Busch’s batty queer genius. The author of the adored camp classics Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party, as well as the Broadway hit Tales of the Allergist’s Wife, was never in sharper form than with this campy, vampy masterwork about the travails of a vain, faded movie star, her calculating tennis pro lover, her yutz of a husband, and their two hysterical (and hysterically funny) bratty kids.
Poor washed up Angela Arden. She was once a silver screen goddess. After a succession of colossal flops – produced by her husband, Sol Sussman – she pivoted to a mediocre TV career. A decade later she’s been reduced to starring in Annie Get Your Gun in summer stock in Wichita.
We learn all of this in a series of delectably fake Variety and Hollywood Reporter headlines projected on a screen in the clever prologue. I don’t believe that was in Charles Busch’s crazy script, but it’s a perfect beginning to this ribald, sharp as a five-inch stiletto heel production from Hollywood’s Celebration Theatre.
When the play opens, it’s 1967. Angela is planning her comeback (she’s received an offer to sing at a Catskills resort!) and trying to keep her illicit affair with the deep-voiced, prodigiously endowed Tony Parker from Sol, all while trading barbs with her well developed, flirtatious, tsuris-inducing teenage daughter Edie.
"Die, Mommie, Die!' is the season’s funniest play, bar none, west or east of the San Andreas Fault
The Sussmans live in cushy ongepotchket luxury in their Southern California mansion with Bootsie, their loyal, long-suffering maid. The Richard Nixon-loving, Bible spouting Bootsie isn’t a member of either tribe – gay or Jewish – and Busch has a lot of fun playing the square maid against her showbiz employers throughout the play.
Sol returns from a business trip to confront Angela with proof of her affair, setting in motion her plot to murder him with a poisonous suppository, sell the house, and take off for New York and that Catskills gig. The Sussman’s underachieving son, Lance, also shows up unexpectedly, having been thrown out of college for burning down the gymnasium that Sol funded in order to get the school to accept him. (Don’t ask!)
But never mind the fine points of plot. They're far from the most important thing here.
The play's axis revolves around Angela's efforts to deal with the zany predilections of her meshuga family. Busch, a popular drag performer in addition to being a gifted, prolific author, played Angela, memorably, in the original production. Here Drew Droege steps into her wedgies. He’s brilliant, a statuesque master of sharp comic timing, gesticulating theatrically while channeling a crazy combination of Mildred Pierce, Vera Charles and the Church Lady – with great legs, to boot!
Julanne Chidi Hill is adorably zoftig as the concupiscent Edie. Tom DeTrinis, sporting a John Denver wig as Lance, also stands out. They pout, throw tantrums, trade bitchy quips. They’re hilarious as Angela's birdbrained kids, as are the two men in Angela’s life, a smug, smarmy Andrew Carter as Tony and a gruff, exasperated Pat Towne as Sol. Gina Torrecilla is a terrific Bootsie, officious and holier-than-thou to the core. And has she got a surprise for the Sussmans!
The Celebration Theatre production of "Die, Mommie, Die!" (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
While the sardonic shenanigans and nimble performances are what you came to see, you’ll take great pleasure, too, in scenic designer Pete Hickok’s terrific movie-star luxe living room set and costume designer Allison Dillard’s witty, evocative 1960s chichi gowns and coquettish mini-dresses for the women, swanky mod shirts and flared-bottom continental slacks for the men.
All other technical credits are equally solid. Lighting designer Matthew Brian Denman and sound designer Rebecca Kessin use rapid lighting changes and clichéd movie music cues to punctuate Angela’s bitchiest lines and multiple aha! moments.
We have The Center Theatre Group to thank for bringing this wonderful Celebration Theatre production back for a larger audience to enjoy as part of its annual Block Party presentation of outstanding plays from local theaters. It’s the third and final one in this year’s series, preceded by compelling productions of Bloodletting from the Playwrights’ Arena and Ameryka from Critical Mass Performance Group.
“Die, Mommie, Die!”, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, (213) 628-2772