New York City Theater
"Our Leading Lady"
Manhattan Theater Club
As a satire on theater people, Charles Busch’s "Our Leading Lady" runs through very funny clichés about megalomaniacal actors. As a riff on slavery and the horrors of being on stage during the assassination of Lincoln, it’s more problematical. Caught between two stools, the halves don’t dovetail.
The title refers to Laura Keene, starring in "Our American Cousin" at Ford’s Theatre in April, 1865. The mostly farcical first act is taken up with rehearsals, vacuous talk, and campy remarks. We learn of Keene’s failed marriage, her two daughters, her ambitions as an actor-manager, and her sympathy for the Union. Busch is at his best here, flinging bitchy remarks like “Darling, please don’t wrinkle your brow – it’s so unattractive.” The act ends with the assassination.
In the more serious Act Two, Keene tells of rushing to Lincoln’s box and, later, of being blamed by Mrs. Lincoln for the tragedy since the actress wrote a note to the White House pleading with Lincoln not to cancel his attendance. Her description of the confrontation is engrossing, as is a scene with her servant. The play switches back to comedy with a detective’s exasperation in trying to investigate these egocentric performers.
Although the evening bounces hither and yon, the performances and production are solid. Kate Mulgrew is terrific as the controlling Keene. Maxwell Caulfield is suave as Keene’s lover and Reed Birney is smarmy as a lecherous older actor, with Kristine Nielsen delightfully ditsy as Birney’s wife. Also fine are Amy Rutberg as a wised-up ingénue, Barbara Bryne as a poignant veteran actor, Billy Wheelan as a wet-behind-the-ears apprentice, and J. R. Horne as the frustrated detective. But it’s Ann Duquesnay as the mysterious servant who is the most intriguing. Lynn Meadow directs with a firm hand, but even she cannot make all the parts fit.
David A. Rosenberg
March 20, 2007