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.
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.
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…)
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