Over the last three decades, Charles Busch has made a name for himself as a playwright and performer with a series of send-ups of classic film genres from beach-blanket comedies to femme-fatale noir to ’50s horror. “The Confession of Lily Dare,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre in a Primary Stages production, taps a more obscure period in Hollywood history: pre-Hayes code melodramas of the late 1930s featuring women who are forced into sordid lives, often in prostitution, and make horrific sacrifices for children they’ve given up for adoption in infancy.
As usual, drag veteran Busch plays Lily Dare, who is at first plucked from a Swiss convent school and plopped into the San Francisco brothel run by her mother’s long-estranged sister (Jennifer Van Dyck) just before the 1906 earthquake. She soon encounters a wide range of Bay Area society, from a sweetheart prostitute (Nancy Anderson) to a well-heeled john (Howard McGillin) to a gay sidekick named Mickey (Kendal Sparks) who plays piano in the brothel’s cabaret space.
The good news is that you don’t need to be familiar with films like 1929’s “Madame X” or 1931’s “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” with Helen Hayes to enjoy the proceedings — or the witty dialogue that the characters deliver in a rat-a-tat fashion. At its best, Busch’s script plays as both an homage to the old films as well as a modern commentary on it.
As Mickey notes at one point in a line that would not have passed muster even in pre-code Hollywood, “There’s always work to be found for a piano player who knows ragtime and a hooker who does anal.”
By now, Busch has honed his routine, eliciting laughs from even throwaway lines with a drop in his vocal register or a well-timed eyebrow raise. And the rest of the cast — which also includes Christopher Borg playing everything from a baron to an Italian opera director to an Irish priest — matches him in a tone that remains broadly comic without ever veering into spoof.
Busch’s longtime collaborator Carl Andress directs with cinematic panache and a nice sense of pacing, aided by Rachel Townsend’s striking costumes and B.T. Whitehill’s evocative set.