Charles Busch: Broad Appeal

Charles Busch talks Liza and Judy at the Palace and takes Kathleen Turner camping off-Broadway in The Third Story.



 Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch in a scene from MCC Theater’s production of The Third Story XLARGE (JAON MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Speaking of big celebrities, your new play, The Third Story, costars Kathleen Turner, who does double duty as a German doctor and an alcoholic 1940s screenwriter. So is this the first time that you’ve starred opposite another man in drag? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Aww, be nice now! I’m crazy about Kathleen Turner. She’s a big, ballsy, brash gal, and I’m having a ball with her. I think she’s also having a very good time. She hasn’t been in an off-Broadway show since early on in her career, so she’s roughing it a bit. I may be a lady, but I’m also a gentleman, so I gave her the private dressing room — and the last bow too.

How’d you get her for the role?
We’d done the play at La Jolla Playhouse last year with Mary Beth Peil in the same role, but I’d done a big rewrite that really changed the whole character: She had been an elegant, ladylike mother, but it seemed to suit the play more if she was this garrulous, hard-drinking dame — which is just not Mary Beth Peil. Bernie Telsey, one of the producers, is also a major casting director. Kathleen had approached Bernie about another play that she was interested in doing, and he said, “Would you consider working off-Broadway?” She said, “Yeah!” So he sent her my play. When he mentioned Kathleen Turner to me I thought, Oh, it’s a nice idea, but she’ll never do it. I do sometimes go to the negative place. But she wanted to meet with me and Carl Andress, the director. So we went over to her apartment — which has this extraordinary view of the Hudson River — and she had the play laid out on the dining room table. We sat down on either side of her, and she said in that lethal baritone, “Boys, I am intrigued, but not hooked.” So I laid all the jewels on the table: I said, “It ain’t much money, but we’ll treat you with the respect that hasn’t been seen since the days of Bernhardt and Duse.” I think she liked that. When we left I told Carl, “Man, she has some poker face, because I could not tell you which way she’s going to go.” The next day, though, she said yes.

What’s your favorite Kathleen Turner film?
I haven’t seen it in years, but I loved Prizzi’s Honor. That was a wonderful movie. She really did have a great stretch of first-rate movies. I read somewhere that the average life of a glamorous movie actress is five years, so she’s been very smart about extending her career by taking challenging roles in the theater.

You’re both 54. Have you bonded over your age?
No, but I’m glad that I’m not the oldest person in the room. Lately, that’s been happening to me, and I don’t much care for it.

The New York Times recently ran a picture of the two of you laughing and drinking together at a cast party. I loved it, but the fabulous chenille toque hat that you wore threatened to upstage Miss Turner!
When you don’t have that much hair, hats become very important. My life has always been a search for the perfect hat. I’ve got so many hats sitting in my closet that I never wear, because I’ll say, “Well, this isn’t really a woman’s hat. It’s not gender-specific.” Then I buy it, wear it, and realize I look like somebody’s Aunt Sheila. The secret is that when you do find a good hat, you’ve got to buy two of them. I’ve lost more hats in taxis — it’s almost like losing a child.

Tags: Theater