Charles Busch, the master of satire in drag, achieves something wild and crazy in his latest comedy, “The Confession of Lily Dare,” which he wrote. In this Primary Stages production, he also romps through the title role. On the one hand Busch delivers an often hilarious look at the kind of weepy films that Hollywood churned out in the pre-and-post code 1930s. Amazingly, even while he is mercilessly spoofing such films and the actresses who starred in them, there are moments in which he can makes one emotionally sympathetic toward his problem-beset heroine. That’s quite a feat.
Directed by Carl Andress, the play has a superb cast that picks up exactly on the camp tone of this latest Busch confection. As for Busch as Lily Dare, he appears in assorted regalia (his costumes designed by Jessica Jahn, those of other characters by Rachel Townsend). A lot of phases in Lily’s life must be reflected in what she’s wearing—naïve young orphan, cabaret singer, brothel madam, murderess and condemned prisoner. Lily wears amusingly flamboyant wigs (design by Katherine Carr). One highlighted appearance is as a Dietrich-type cabaret singer dubbed Mandalay, in which Busch is at Lily’s sexiest looking. As the eventual madam of a chain of whorehouses, she appears tough and powerful.
The plot involves her marriage to Louis, a bookkeeper, who, after making her pregnant, dies in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. How can Lily raise a child alone? She wants to, but the daughter is taken from her by the corrupt and criminal Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin) and placed with an upscale couple, Dr. and Mrs. Carlton (Christopher Borg and Jennifer Van Dyck). Lily is sent to prison to take the rap for Blackie, and when released, she wants her daughter back.
The plot is packed with incidents ripe for mockery and amusing lines, one of the funniest of which, in a list of Lily’s degradations, the lowest by intonation of disgust is—cabaret singer. The entire story spins from a retrospective visit to the grave of Lily by Nancy Anderson as Emmy Lou, a former colleague in sin. Anderson gives an enjoyably funny and sympathetic performance throughout. At the grave-site she encounters their mutual pal, pianist Mickey (Kendal Sparks). There is back and forth between that location and flashbacks.
Jennifer Van Dyck is particularly outstanding in her multiple roles, including Lily’s Aunt Rosalie, a madam who takes in the young Lily; a supposed baroness, and as Lily’s long estranged daughter Louise, who becomes a famous opera singer and—surely you’ll expect it—has an emotionally overwrought reunion with her mom under the most dire circumstances.
Christopher Borg also excels in multiple roles. In addition to Dr. Carlton, he plays the ill-fated Louis, the phony baron; Maestro Guardi, an opera conductor, and the priest in the death house. The supporting cast members deserved all the loud applause they received on the night I attended.
There are some lulls in the course of the two hour play (including intermission), with parts that could have been tightened, such as some of the graveside talk by Emmy Lou and Mickey. But overall “The Confession of Lily Dare” is the hoot it is meant to be, further evidence of Busch’s enduing talent and as pointed out earlier, also evidence that with is acting expertise he can elicit sympathy for his character even in the process of dishing out so many laughs. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street. Phone: 212-352-3101, Reviewed February 9, 2020.