Jimmy rents a space in a four-story townhouse from Adriana, a crusty, outrageously funny dowager reminiscent of Diana Vreeland. Back in the day, Jimmy and his best friend Rita, played the nightclub circuit, where he impersonated screen legends like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other glamorous sirens of the silver screen. “I am not a drag queen”, he insists, “I am a tribute artist.” Not long after she discloses that she has no heirs or will, and doesn’t care who gets the estate, Adriana fortuitously kicks the bucket. Under the circumstances, Rita and Jimmy concoct a scheme to pass Jimmy off as Adriana. They are strapped for cash and Jimmy has mad transgender performance skills. What could conceivably go wrong?
Out of the blue, Christina, Adriana’s niece appears, then Rodney, her estranged rough trade lover. Even though the real Adriana is still (ostensibly) alive, her tenuous hold on health has raised questions of probate and division of assets. Numerous complications arise. Playwright Charles Busch deserves props for unfurling one surprise after another. Jimmy has fallen hard and fast for the unmistakably despicable, thuggy Rodney, and Rita for the neurotic Christina. Without revealing anything more, very little that happens after the premise, is what we might expect from this kind of comedy.
Charles Busch has certainly spent much of his career exploring drag comedy and mocking the camp excesses of melodrama by casting queens in lieu of actual female performers. Many of his plays (Die! Mommie! Die!, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) feel like John Waters with dazzle and cachet. The Tribute Artist would seem to mark his gradual transition to humor that still considers the connection between gender and personality, but in less extreme terms. Jimmy ultimately doesn’t treat his female personae as fulfillment of identity, and Christina’s daughter is an FTM young man.
A kind of riff on the Bette Davis classic, Dead Ringer, The Tribute Artist has the amusing aspects of drawing room comedy, without Busch’s early predilection for cartoony satire. The undeniable double-edged sword of art and entertainment is that you can be outrageous and over-the-top if you know how to make it work. Expertise and technique eclipse content every time. The Tribute Artist is more cerebral and less frantic than many of Busch’s previous endeavors. It’s pleasurable without necessarily aiming for the same kind of punch.
At the center of Uptown’s production is the saucy, savvy, intuitive Coy Covington, who always takes drag to the realms of the sublime. Like the best of his craft, his female performances are a combined comment on the constraints of femininity and his flawless gift for hilarity. “Jimmy” is a demanding role, requiring imitative allusions from classic films, fluid emotional shifts, and meticulous deadpan delivery. Covington rises to the occasion, creating a character that has a life of their own, beyond the acquisition of a role and the boundaries of the script.
Uptown Players presents The Tribute Artist, playing August 25th-September 10th, 2017, Kalita Humphrey’s Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org