It’s Swanson who Busch most resembles in mien and manner as he sweeps through his portrayal of Angela Arden, the faded star singer now trapped in a loveless marriage to a skinflint film producer. Whether scheming for escape, finding solace in her children or her lover, or trying to free herself from the shackles of a long-suppressed secret about her dearly departed sister Barbara, Angela constantly inhabits a personal circle of pain that no one is allowed to penetrate.
No one onstage, that is. Every other minute or so, Busch draws you right into it with those priceless, yet veracious, expressions that make her both oversized and yet snugly show-business. First she’ll display a face of satisfaction, now one of regret, next she’ll embody vengefulness or hurt. Whether Angela is slapping or being slapped, every turn of Busch’s head, raise of an eyebrow, or noiseless gasp becomes a window into the agonizing deceit inherent in stardom.
Interestingly, Busch is far more effective in the role now than he was in the 2003 film, which played everything so small and so straight that the result was, if still amusing, something of a drag (pun intended). He seems far more real as Angela onstage, charting every emotion with a scope and intensity more befitting the Empire State building than a mere mortal. Rest assured, wherever you’re sitting in the theater, missing any given detail is an impossibility.
True, in many ways, there’s nothing new here. Angela is but another waypoint on Busch’s career-long exploration of female empowerment as seen through the women-centric films of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, with this story (set in 1967) the bridge between disintegrating Old-Hollywood glamour and the encroaching ugliness of the decades to come (an LSD hit figures prominently into the plot). If you’ve seen Busch as this character before, you’ve seen him this time.
Bob Ari is grittily funny as Angela’s domineering and (literally) constipated husband Sol, whose Orwellian control schemes eventually land him in a compromising position of his own. (A suppository — roughly the size of a cruise missile — is involved.) Ashley Morris and Van Hansis are terrific as Angela and Sol’s children, Edith and Lance: She’s all giddy, disrupted innocence as the girl with a fierce father fixation; he skirts the border of camp, while never completely crossing it, as the boy obsessed with his mother. Chris Hoch brings a delightful decadence to smarmy-sexy television star (and secret lover of at least three of the others) Tony Parker.
But the one who comes closest to matching Busch’s brio is Kristine Nielsen, who plays the family’s servant, Bootsie. Though fully implementing her usual wild eyes and quavering voice to make her character the jittery observer of this dysfunctional world, Nielsen also lays on another shocking twist: She makes Bootsie the complete equivalent of the subservient black maid - just one who, in this case, happens to be white.
Her preening and preaching, often a jumble of distorted phrases, bears the complete stereotypical lexicon, minus the frequent utterings of “yes’m” and “mass’uh.” But if Nielsen’s work is also the flat-out silliest in the show, it adds another delicious layer to a story all about the elusiveness of identity that’s reflected in everything and everyone from Busch on down.
The message, such as there is one, is that you can never know for sure who anyone else is - and even knowing who you are yourself is tricky. But there’s no doubt whatsoever that Busch, Nielsen, and the rest of this Die Mommie Die! are the real thing: a huge comic hit.
Die Mommie Die!