The very cool folks sitting next to me at The Third Story, La Jolla Playhouse's latest production, understand live theater as well as you do, if that's possible. You can tell plays are this San Diego couple's stock in trade because they have the perks to show for it—three months a year in New York, a Manhattan apartment and a stake in a program that lets Broadway tickets go for as little as $3.50. (They also briefly copped to the membership's serious downside: Given the quality of some Broadway pieces, $3.50 is highway robbery.)
Not surprisingly, these two know a lot about dragster Charles Busch, who wrote and performs in The Third Story and who's made a career out of female impersonation and film history. He's a cult favorite among those who love both disciplines, and this show is loony with each. Two of the three stories center on a mother-son screenwriting team and a B movie about a pact between female mob boss Queenie Bartlett (Busch) and a frigid lady scientist; the other features Busch as Baba Yaga, a fairytale witch who forges an alliance with a befuddled young princess. My seatmates loved it, and I'm delighted at their diehard devotion to the art.
They may not have considered that Busch the film guy trumps Busch the theater maven a little too often for comfort.Believe it or not, these world-premiere stories connect fairly well, what with David Gallo's mobile scene pieces, Gregory Gale's costumes and Chris Akerlind's lights melding the disparate settings. Director Carl Andress can point to three outstanding camp send-ups straight out of B movie lore—Jennifer Van Dyck as the lovely but frosty Dr. Hudson, who clearly hasn't gotten laid since the Carter administration; Mary Beth Peil as screenwriter Peg, who's had three to five husbands depending on who you talk to; and Scott Parkinson as Zygote, a Frankenstinian creation with seven nipples who passes gas out his ears (“I daren't take off my toupee; I have a terrible case of the runs!”).
But that “I have” is exactly what's wrong with so much of the language here. The characters are so busy with first-person patter (“I have,” I wasn't,” “As I get older”) that they rarely invite other speakers into a dialogue. That campy approach works just fine in the B movies Busch so admires, but it does little to promote the intimacy involved in live conversation. It's said Orson Welles (of whose work I'm a tremendous fan) could move people to tears reading the phone book aloud—a fun parlor game, maybe, but it doesn't make the phone book a living, breathing script.
Theater is the living library of our legacies, the terribly public summary of the evolution that, for better or worse, got us to where we are. Busch understands this, and he's got the following and the body of work to show for it. But film and theater don't always coexist, and Busch's The Third Story often mixes the genres with dialogue a little too cinematic for its own good. The disparity is a major distraction from an otherwise ambitious tour de force. This review is based on the matinée performance of Sept. 27. The Third Story runs through Oct. 19 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. $36-$63. www.lajollaplayhouse.org.