By Brandon Voss
Originally published on Advocate.com March 29 2009 11:00 PM ET
The course of
never did run smooth. A vehicle for two aging divas, James
Kirkwood's play centers on a pair of rival Hollywood
has-beens who are given an opportunity to star in a play
together (also called
) in order to revive their careers. A true case of life
imitating art imitating life, the cattiness and bickering
between the actresses playing the parts became as bad backstage
as it was written on the page.
Originally presented as
a pre-Broadway tour in 1986 starring Carol Channing and Mary
Martin, it closed on the road before making it to New York.
Best known as a Tony-winning bookwriter for
A Chorus Line
, Kirkwood documented the delicious details of the disaster in
Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road
With Mary Martin and Carol Channing
national tour in 2007, this time starring former
costars Joan Collins and Linda Evans, also flamed out before
reaching the Great White Way. Collins later aired out the dirty
laundry of her off-stage battles with Evans in London's
In a way, it
would've been somewhat disappointing had last Monday's
staged reading of the play at New York's Town Hall (a
benefit for Friends in Deed -- The Crisis Center for
Life-Threatening Illness) been drama-free. Here the lead roles
of Sylvia Glenn and Leatrice Monsee would be played by drag
legends Charles Busch and Lypsinka, with Whoopi Goldberg
appearing as Aretha, the sassy maid. Lypsinka's male alter
ego, John Epperson, had adapted the comedy for the reading, and
Mark Waldrop (who helmed Bette Midler's 1999 Divine
Millennium tour) was directing the event. I wouldn't have
missed this for the world.
But from the energy of
the largely gay crowd outside the theater, I sensed something
was amiss the moment my boyfriend Nick and I arrived on the
scene. As we got closer, we spotted sheets of crisp white paper
taped to the front doors with the following notice: "Due
to illness, the part of Aretha, played by Whoopi Goldberg, will
be performed by Lisa Estridge."
"I was dreading
that," groaned Nick, who knew that Goldberg had been out
that morning. "Dreading. That works on two levels because
Whoopi has dreadlocks. See what I did there?" But with the
immediate threat of rioting on West 43rd Street, there was no
time to congratulate him on his wordplay. Then, all of a
sudden, the crowd's mood seemed to shift, thanks to the
close proximity of other celebrities. Just moments before the
show began, Parker Posey breezed past Michael Kors and
Law & Order: SVU
's Richard Belzer. It was a veritable who's who of local
notables that regularly attend one-night theatrical
As luck would have it,
the seats behind ours were occupied by Statler and Waldorf, the
elderly hecklers from
The Muppet Show
-- if Statler and Waldorf were gay, horny, and wore turquoise
jewelry. There were actually many such Muppets scattered
throughout the audience, but the two behind me were the only
ones I could hear. And smell, thanks to liberal applications of
Aramis for Men.
Currently appearing in
alongside Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett, Tony-winner
Christine Ebersole took the stage first to make a formal
announcement about Goldberg's absence. Quieting those who had
neglected to read the door signage, Ebersole encouraged the
crowd to be supportive of Estridge, who had been Goldberg's
rehearsal stand-in. "Isn't this how it starts?"
she asked. "Shirley MacLaine and all that?" Ebersole
knew her audience; it was one of the few rooms in town where
you could kill with a
Lesbian author Fran
Lebowitz appeared next and positioned herself on a stool to
fulfill the show's narration duties with her signature dry,
's Bryan Batt soon entered to much applause as smarmy
theater producer Martin Klemmer. We learned that Martin hoped
to bring Sylvia and Leatrice together in
the play-within-a-play, with the financial backing of -- Brad
Pitt? Yes, it immediately became apparent that Epperson's
idea of an "adaptation" actually meant "drastic
pop-cultural update." Therefore, those hoping to hear what
1986 audiences heard were out of luck; instead, the new script
contained wisecracks about the likes of Ann Coulter, Anna
Nicole Smith, and Sally Field's Boniva commercials.
As big-haired maid
Aretha, Estridge entered next and did an admirable job, all
things considered. But the role had been beefed up and tailored
specifically for Goldberg by Epperson, so Aretha's
streetwise sass rarely rang true. "'Child,
please,' indeed," echoed Statler to Waldorf behind me.
Later, a line about "what witch doctor Barbara Walters
goes to to look so good" didn't land without the wide-eyed
look everyone knew Goldberg would have undoubtedly shot the
audience. You know the look: Kenan Thompson does it during
Saturday Night Live
The grandiose entrances
of Busch and La Lyp were by far the highlights of the evening.
As Sylvia, Busch was a radiant vision in a chartreuse pantsuit,
though she soon changed into a metallic silver gown. Receiving
equal fanfare and applause, Lypsinka arrived shortly thereafter
as Leatrice, decked out in a formfitting purple ensemble and a
stunning fur cape. "According to the program, it's a faux
from Fabulous Furs," whispered Waldorf to Statler a bit
louder than necessary, just in case someone in my row was
prying the lid off a can of red house paint.
As expected, one-liners
between Sylvia and Leatrice flew from then on like globules of
spittle at a
Flavor of Love
clock ceremony. Though they don't pack the same punch out
of context, I scribbled a few of them down on a damp cocktail
napkin I had shoved in my coat pocket.
"I'll have gin
on the rocks -- but don't make it too strong!"
Harvey Fierstein's gynecologist."
"Three words that
strike fear in the hearts of moviegoers:
starring Kate Hudson.
Statler and Waldorf got
a special thrill when a male stripper from Chippendales.com
named Boom-Boom Johnson joined the party (don't ask).
Played by Dashaun Young, who currently appears in slightly more
clothing as Simba in Broadway's
The Lion King
, Boom-Boom encouraged the ladies to do the hand dance from
Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on
It)" video before putting his bare backside to the
audience and positioning himself directly in front of Aretha to
whip off his thong. (Insert that Whoopi look again here.)
The first act pretty
much ended with Busch and Lypsinka slapping each other and
smacking each other's asses with their script binders.
"That's the best use they got out of those scripts so far
tonight," said Statler.
Nick and I stayed in
our seats during intermission lest we miss any more Muppet wit
or wisdom. Sizing up celebrity scene photographer Patrick
McMullan's slender young male companion, Statler asked,
"Is that his new boy toy?"
me," replied Waldorf.
Before the reading
resumed, show queens got a tasty treat when Roma Torre and
Donna Karger, television reporters from local cable channel
NY1's theater-centric program
, joined each other on the Town Hall stage to feign their own
off-stage rivalry. Karger: "You hideous pig." Torre:
"Thank you, Donna, you c-word, you."
In a stroke of
metatheatrical genius, Torre then read her fake review of the
reading thus far before the ladies extolled the charitable
virtues of Friends In Deed. At her suggestion that
might find future life on a legitimate New York stage, Torre
was met not with applause but with tepid
There was some brief
business at the start of act 2 with a policeman played by tall
drink of water Todd DuBail. Former
cover boy Cheyenne Jackson had originally committed to the
small role but bowed out of the benefit just days before due to
a scheduling conflict. "This guy damn well better strip
too," said Waldorf. Alas, he did not.
Because it's just that
kind of a play, Sylvia and Leatrice accidentally scarfed down
some hash brownies, which set the loopy tone for the remainder
of the evening. "Do you think we might behave like Whitney
Houston?" asked Leatrice on discovering the snack's
secret ingredient. Hell to the no, but the setup did allow
Lypsinka to stop the show in spotlight with a fantasy
lip-synched performance for which she's famous. I
wasn't familiar with the song, but suffice it to say that
both Statler and Waldorf hummed along.
Before long, Batt's
producer Martin reappeared to seal the deal on the
play-within-a-play and wound up popping a few brownies himself.
What followed was an epic exercise in mugging and physical
comedy. "I kind of hope someone's cell phone
rings," said Statler about three minutes into the
Then came the part in
the show where the actors pretend to screw up the lines, break
character, and laugh at their flub, thus tickling the audience.
"Sylvia, let's do the play," said Busch, reading
Leatrice's line in error.
line," protested Lypsinka before addressing the audience
directly: "She did that in every rehearsal, so I
wasn't surprised." Neither was I; I'd seen a
similar character-breaking bit done with more believability by
Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat in the 1999 revival of
Annie Get Your Gun
. (Yes, I'm that gay.)
Spoiler alert: Sylvia
and Leatrice ultimately decide to do the play. The end. Well,
sort of. During the first round of applause, Batt, Young, and
DuBail returned to the stage for a cheeky song-and-dance number
that repeated the lyric "the bitch is legendary." It
seemed like overkill until I realized something had to waste
time while the three stars changed into showstopping crimson
evening gowns for their curtain calls. Seizing one last
opportunity to steal focus, Lypsinka was quick to expose her
performance, various subtle winks had been made to the audience
to suggest that (especially without Epperson's admirable
adaptation efforts) perhaps the reason
never reached Broadway had more to do with a weak script than
with backstage bitchery; when referring to the
play-within-a-play's merits, characters would often break
the fourth wall to clarify, "Not this play, but the one
we're thinking about doing." In fact, I imagine that
the only reason no one ever outright bashed
was because its playwright died in 1989 of AIDS-related
Yet somehow I don't
think the late Mr. Kirkwood would mind my summing up the
evening by paraphrasing a zinger from another sharp-tongued
diva of a certain age, Bette Davis, when she infamously
commented on rival Joan Crawford's demise: My mother always
taught me to speak good of the dead.
is dead. Good.