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The Third Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Charles Busch might want to pay more attention to the writing advice he dispenses in his new theatrical slim-noir The Third Story, which MCC is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. According to one character, the title derives from the version of any given composition that's often the best: "The first is the genesis of an idea, but usually completely off the track. The second is when you go overboard with flights of imagination. The third story is when you return to the truth."

Judging by this play, Busch is currently mired somewhere between stories one and two. While he might have some worthwhile things to say about parents and children, he spends far too much time stating and restating them to ever actually communicate anything. Of the four stories that collide here like a four-car freeway pileup, none merits even so much as momentary rubbernecking.

That Busch, the reigning monarch of elegant Off-Broadway camp, could derive such dreariness from such a potentially juicy subject as Hollywood's obsession with treacly family topics shoehorned into any genre is as unfortunate as it is unexpected. When he wants to, Busch can absorb and exude raw and honest - if oversize - maternalism; he demonstrated this as recently as late 2007 with a revival of his female-empowerment spoof Die Mommie Die!.

He does, however, need both a point and the wisdom to not make it 20 times if once will suffice; he displays neither with The Third Story. Instead, he conjures up an Omaha house in 1949 to serve as the epicenter for a quartet of woozy flights of fancy, three of which two faded writers design to return themselves to prominence. The son, Drew (Jonathan Walker), is brilliant but unambitious; he's given up on women and writing, and is content to live out his life as a postman. His maybe-blacklisted mother, Peg (Kathleen Turner), however, insists he get back on as many horses as possible, if only so she'll be able to come along for a ride.

Kathleen Turner and Jonathan Walker.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Peg's knack for devising plots and Drew's for seeing them to completion results in a trio of tales that tangle with their already twisted lives: A small-time gangster (Walker again) tries to free himself from the bonds of his crime-boss mom (Busch); an austere lady scientist named Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck) must cope with the simpering genetic abomination she's named Zygote (Scott Parkinson), whom she birthed in a petrie dish and who now looks to her for love she can't give; and a heartsick princess (Sarah Rafferty) consults with a crone of a witch (Busch again), willing to submit to any subjugation if only her cherished prince can be made to love her.

With critical plot threads (frequently involving parental dissatisfaction and mistaken identity) appearing over and over, any two of these stories might have made a complete play by themselves. But Drew and Peg rehashing their rivalries and expiating their stressors three times over is simply overkill in a play with so little on its mind. Because Drew and Peg have little substance outside their creations, and because their characters must all share the stage with each other, the overall effect is one of reading single pages at random from a half-dozen different books.

So even when Drew and Peg's relationship becomes the evening's dramatic anchor, the play is never moving. And because, unlike much of Busch's frothier work, the characters aren't developed past the storyboard stage, the play is almost never funny. Busch's unblinking, camera-fellating takes are, as always, good for a chuckle or two, especially when kitted up as the mafia matron; and Van Dyck fashions a vivid comic caricature of her eerily sexy scientist, especially sinking her claws into a howlingly pulpy speech explaining both her fear of children and her own unnatural experience with twins. Everyone else comes across more eggy than they do hard-boiled.

This includes Turner, who brings an appropriate mannishness to her emasculating role, but with her slurred speech and pensive-to-the-point-of-forgetful line readings seems to be gearing up for a revival of her 2005 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. As Peg, she never radiates gossip-drenched Old Hollywood; but she's more convincing than she is as Constance's cohort and confidante, Dr. Rutenspitz, created only (and barely) by a pair of thick classes and a German accent approximate enough to fail slicing through sauerkraut.

Part of the problem is director Carl Andress, who shows more flair in setting up individual "shots" than he does in editing them into a complete picture of mother-and-child pairing, let alone four. But the real troublemaker is Busch, who in giving Andress too much has in effect given him nothing. Matters don't improve even in the final moments, when Peg and Drew's various climactic revelations come as a surprise less because of their emotional content than because they're supported by so little. Busch may see in all his fairy tales here analogues for the troubled interactions between the generations, but any parallels come across only as functions of a play that is itself too flighty to ever mature properly.

The Third Story
Through February 28
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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