“Die, Mommie, Die!” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Die, Mommie, Die! is a hallucinatory Joan Crawford movie onstage – and on steroids. Written by Charles Busch as a starring vehicle for himself, it premiered in Los Angeles in 1999 with Busch in the central role of Angela Arden, an aging Hollywood star whose fortunes declined precipitously after the death of her twin sister, and who is now desperate to make a comeback.

Drew Droege. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

The diva (played in this production by Drew Droege) is trapped in a marriage to film producer Sol Sussman (Pat Towne) – whose fortunes have also declined, and who’s now in hock to the Mob – but pursues happiness, not to mention physical satisfaction, with her young stud Tony (Andrew Carter).

L-R: Drew Droege, Julanne Chidi Hill, and Pat Towne. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

The action unfolds in the Sussmans’ Beverly Hills home in 1967 – the stunning set is by Pete Hickok, and the fabulously period-appropriate costumes are by Allison Dillard – which Angela and Sol share with their princess-y daughter Edith (Julanne Chidi Hall) and their housekeeper Bootsie (Gina Torrecilla), a Bible-quoting southern Christian lady rapturous at the prospect of Richard Nixon’s occupying the White House. The Sussmans’ son Lance (Tom DeTrinis) arrives home from college, having been expelled for burning down the gym in an anti-war demonstration, but proud of the fact that he persuaded the drama department to cast him as Ado Annie in Oklahoma.

Julanne Chidi Hall (L) and Gina Torrecilla. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman


Drew Droege (L) and Tom DeTrinis. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Yes, this is a family in need of therapy. Preferably shock therapy.

Which is essentially what they – and we in the audience – get. Tension runs screamingly high from the moment the curtain rises: Edith hates Angela with a vengeance, Angela hates Sol, Sol hates Angela, Lance – possibly brain-damaged because of Angela’s drug use during her pregnancy – isn’t sure who he hates, Bootsie loves Sol and tosses back slugs from a hip flask when no one’s looking, and Tony becomes the object of love and lust for almost the entire family, possibly because he’s reputed to have the largest penis west of the Mississippi.

There’s murder, mayhem – including a very funny bit involving the angry tossing of a pair of scissors – double-crosses, hidden identities, and more turnabouts and reversals than one thinks could fit in a two-hour play. And under the direction of Ryan Bergmann, it’s all done in high-camp style, punctuated by knowing looks to the audience on particularly revealing lines, dramatic musical chords and lighting changes (the clever lighting design is by Matthew Brian Denman, and the outrageous sounds are by Rebecca Kessin) underscoring shocking moments, and double-entendres and plays on words which make the audience howl with glee.

Drew Droege (L) and Pat Towne. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Camp thrives on cliché, and there’s plenty of that here. However, two of the casting choices strangely undercut the clichés.

Tony – the ambi-sextrous stud with a gigantic member, who’s apparently irresistible to almost the entire family, cries out to be played by someone tall, dark, and handsome. Or tall, blonde, and ripped. Whatever. Mr. Carter, though, has a slight build, and our heroine towers over him – at several moments, Tony literally has to look up at the woman he’s presumably swept off her feet. True, his less-than-muscular physique does lead to a clever sight gag, when a character jumps on him and wraps her legs around his torso: he starts up the stairs, but obviously can’t make it carrying her, so, with a shrug to the audience, they go at it on the living room floor instead. But I can’t help wondering about this casting against type. (Also, he’s a tennis pro, yet never carries a – cliché – tennis racket…)

Drew Droege (L) and Andrew Carter. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

Edith is a clichéd Jewish Princess – wildly in love with her daddy, who’s wildly in love with her and spoils her to death: all that’s missing is for Sol to place a gold crown on her head. While Ms Hill is a fine actress (I still collapse in guffaws when I remember her performance in Bootycandy) and does a splendid job with the role, the casting of an African-American woman as the daughter of an all-white Jewish family – with no reference to the fact that she looks different from everyone else – is, in this context, less a tribute to color-blind casting than simply puzzling. There are references to Angela’s “sleeping around,” which implies that Edith might have had a different father. But would Sol then treat her as his undisputed “princess”? To me, this extra layer proves distracting rather than liberating.

The cast – as is to be expected at Celebration – is thoroughly professional, though the first act was a touch hyper on opening night, with several of the actors virtually shouting their lines. The second act proved considerably more entertaining, as the cast seemed to relax into their roles.

A cautionary note: the play is set in the 60s, so almost everyone smokes, and the smell pervades the theatre. If you’re allergic to cigarette smoke, be warned.

Die, Mommie, Die! is a curiosity, an old-fashioned example of gay theatre on the cusp of change. It’s arch, it’s stylish, and though it relies on the same camp sensibility as shows such as Women Behind Bars, its carefully-constructed artifice reminds one more of Oscar Wilde than Tom Eyen. If the reaction of the opening night audience is any indication, it should have a wilde-ly successful run at Celebration Theatre.

Die, Mommie, Die!
Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Ryan Bergmann

Through March 26

Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com


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