Hot on the high heels of Charles Busch’s recent San Francisco cabaret engagement comes a production of his “Die Mommie Die!” at New Conservatory Theatre Center that is guaranteed to fill your quota for camp comedy consumption.
Standing regally tall in the stilettos of the central role Busch originated is J. Conrad Frank, frequently seen around town as Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy. They are kindred souls.
In this and other roles, Frank is a demonstrated master – or is that mistress? – of the concept of the male actress. His is no lip-synching, gender abusing drag parody. He brings to life a true, full-blooded stage diva and while there’s a lot of winking playing with the audience – both literal and figurative – it is done with a totally straight face. The jokes are in the script, not in the fact that a man is playing the female lead.
The heightened style that flows so effortlessly from Frank as 1960s-pop-singer-on-the-comeback-trail Angela Arden is pretty well matched by the rest of the company thanks to director F. Allen Sawyer. Joe Wicht chews an extra helping of scenery as Angela’s self-delusional, perpetually constipated B-movie producer husband, Sol.
Not surprisingly, it’s a family where the kids are definitely and delightfully not all right. After a little warm up, Ali Haas hits a series of creepily inappropriate poses as obsessed “daddy’s girl” Edith, who never missed a chance to dis mama Angela. On the flip side is Devin S. O’Brien as Lance, the delicate, disturbed – possibly from Angela’s prescription drug use while pregnant – son, who gets bounced from college for seducing the male math department faculty en masse while preparing to play Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.”
No wonder Angela takes a lover in tennis pro Tony Parker, smarmily played by Justin Liszanckie. All the while she must avoid the watchful eye of her maid Bootsie, a religious on the outside, lusting (for Sol) on the inside Thelma Ritter archtype as essayed by Marie O’Donnell, who delivers one of the funniest death scenes of recent memory.
It’s clear that Sawyer totally gets Busch the playwright, and that he relished creating just the right combination of high drama and name-dropping kitsch that make films like “Where Love Has Gone” and “Die! Die! My Darling” such deliciously guilty pleasures.
Props in every sense also go to Amy Crumpacker’s period-perfect styling, Kuo-Hao Lo’s jaw-droppingly wonderful set, perfectly cued lighting effects by Christian V. Mejia and company costumes by Jorge R. Hernandez.
If you still need convincing that this “Mommie” is the dearest, just consider the credit “Mr. Frank’s Gowns by Mr. David” and imagine the possibilities. They are bountiful!
Die Mommie Die!
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 South Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 2
Tickets: $25 to $45
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org