For anyone (like myself) whose idea of a relaxed Saturday morning is watching an old movie melodrama while making breakfast or checking emails, the early scenes in The Confession of Lily Dare will inspire great admiration. The actors are almost ridiculously adept at imitating the slanted-jaw, raised-eyebrow dialogue from the age of Mae West and Claudette Colbert.
But this uncanniness, abundant in playwright/star Charles Busch’s era-specific book, proves too good for its own good. Without much deviation from what a legitimate ’30s “women’s picture” might actually look and sound like, the play is too close to what it’s supposedly parodying to leave much of an impression. As directed by Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress, you’d be forgiven for thinking the two-hour show is a direct screen-to-stage adaptation—there are probably fewer than ten lines you’d certainly never hear in a melodrama, even one made before the nefarious Hayes Code slapped Hollywood with its nagging capital-M Morality.
B. T. Whitehill’s set, composed of gorgeous near-tableaux, is awe-inspiring in that resourceful Off-Broadway manner and Rachel Townsend’s costumes are appropriately bombastic. In terms of plot, though… well, it’s all plot. To the point where you start wondering where the songs or satire or anything might kick in to distinguish this from an actual earnest melodrama. Framed as two friends’ musings on how a dead-broke Lily Dare’s final resting place could have wound up being a posh San Francisco cemetery, the script presents us with a series of flashbacks detailing the tragic dame’s rises and falls.
Born a shy convent girl with an operatic voice, Lily (Busch) arrives at her Aunt Rosalie’s (Jennifer Van Dyck, in one of many roles) brothel and befriends Emmy Lou (a standout Nancy Anderson) and Mickey (Kendal Sparks). Her sudden affair with nice guy Louis (Christopher Borg, another multiple player) is cut short by tragedy, and she gives up their love child to a wealthy family in search of better lives for them both. She becomes a cabaret star with the help of shady aristocrat Blackie Anderson (Howard McGillin) but, of course, drama is forever afoot.
With performances dutifully doing their job and the technical aspects running smoothly, the play quickly and disappointingly settles into a sort of autopilot, going through the motions of melodrama while losing the films’ charms, and live theater’s, well, liveliness. Busch has not written himself a showy role, a perplexing choice that leaves Lily without the grand gestures or genuinely weepy monologues you might expect from the genre. It turns out Lily Dare doesn’t have all that much to confess, and you’re soon longing for the authenticity of a Turner Classic Movie.
Still, the post-brunch Cherry Lane audience at the matinee I attended ate it up as if it were a long-lost brand of taffy they’d thought extinct since the ’70s. As a relic of simpler times in ye olde gay West Village, The Confession of Lily Dare works well enough. For today’s audience, even one detached from the hyper-pop RuPaul-ness of today’s drag world, it lacks the high camp and lowbrow hilarity that have kept drag audiences engaged since the mere idea of a man in a dress was enough to inspire laughs. Busch is a legendary theatre-maker and queen, whose attention to and admiration for the hyperbolic glory of melodrama do not go unnoticed, but in Lily Dare, he’s missing the edge that a 2020 audience craves.