What happens to aging drag queens? One of them, the 59-year-old Charles Busch, has written a new play that answers just that question you probably never asked. “The Tribute Artist,” which opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters, is the play’s title, which gives us the politically correct term for drag queens, especially those professional transvestites who traffic in the likenesses of Barbra, Cher, Judy, Marilyn and Bette (take your pick). But that’s just the problem: Those women are all old, if not long dead, and how is a celebrity tribute artist going to keep working in Vegas when all the Millennials and Gen-Xers want are impersonations of Rihanna, Celine and Beyonce?
Yes, this is a dilemma you never considered, but Busch has and he’s turned it into a fun, daring and very complicated comedy. In movies like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Tootsie,” the gag depends on straight men trying to pass as the opposite sex. In “The Tribute Artist,” that feat is no problem for Jimmy (Busch), because it’s what he does for a living in Vegas. Or used to do until the Beyonce bunch took over.
Fortunately, Jimmy gets the impersonation job of his career when his wealthy landlady (Cynthia Harris doing her Tallulah Bankhead best) dies, and he and his lesbian Realtor sidekick (the completely outrageous Julie Halston) plot for him to impersonate the old woman so they can wrest her Greenwich Village townhouse from its rightful heir, Christina (Mary Bacon) and her transgender son, Oliver (Keira Keeley, who easily tops Hilary Swank‘s Oscar-winning performance in “Boys Don’t Cry”).
This much plot setup takes us only halfway through act one, at which point it seems like Busch has the premise for a really great TV sitcom. Then the landlady’s very hetero boyfriend Rodney (Jonathan Walker) shows up to complicate Jimmy’s masquerade considerably, and act two begins to play like a gay “Downton Abbey.” Make that a gayer “Downton Abbey” set in the Village.
Curiously, Busch and director Carl Andress don’t let us see Jimmy out of drag, so we never get to enjoy the contrast of before and after that’s the funny centerpiece of those aforementioned Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams drag epics. In place of that makeover, however, Jimmy keeps slipping in and out of several characters from his female-impersonation repertoire to hysterical effect, especially when his Realtor friend calls out, “Rosalind Russell in ‘Picnic’” and “Norma Shearer in ‘The Women’,” because otherwise, “no one gets these references!” anymore.
While Busch’s impersonations are pretty great, better yet are the play’s long digressions in which his characters relate sordid stories from their past. These memories run the gamut, from living off a dead friend’s credit cards to working in the black market of human body parts sold to hospitals. Yes, “The Tribute Artist” is more a long-running miniseries crammed into two-plus hours than it is a sitcom.