B-movie molls, a mad scientist and Tommy guns figure prominently in Charles Busch's latest comic turn The Third Story. Busch, who worships at the altar of 1940s screen legends, has parlayed his love of old movies and strong women into an entertaining, lively production. An added bonus: he cast Kathleen Turner, she of the sultry voice, to lead a multitalented cast that is heaven-sent.
The Third Story, now at the Lucille Lortel, opens in Omaha, where a mother/son screenwriting team (a terrific Turner and Jonathan Walker) have fled to avoid Hollywood's Commie hunt. She's a sassy, boozy broad with a gift for storytelling and a legion of ex-husbands; he's an ordinary guy craving a normal life. Hearing that a studio is looking for scripts, she begs her son to co-write a celluloid tale, which appears before our eyes.
Crime diva Queenie Bartlett (Charles Busch) - imagine a stylish, snarling Eve Arden -rules the underworld. Queenie's son (also played by Walker) loves his mother and a cheap blonde (Sarah Rafferty). Into this B-movie brew comes a subplot - a high-strung scientist (Jennifer Van Dyck) and Zygote (Scott Parkinson), her lab assistant, share a cloning secret.
The Third Story has all the Busch trademarks: razor-sharp dialogue, fast-paced scenes and a hilarious send-up of gangster flicks and sci-fi films. He's crafted a heartfelt salute to the bond between parents and children; plus, it's a chance for four cast members to flex their acting muscles in double roles. Charles Andress directs this satire with flair, aided by David Gallo's smart sets and David Weiner's spot-on lighting.
Cornbury, a ribald play about New York's first cross-dressing governor, now at the Hudson Guild, is a throwback to the transgressive gay comedies of the '70s and '80s. Set in 1702, the Dutch and English are rivals for the New World. The Dutch are known for their Puritanism, sobriety and prejudices, while the saucily foppish Cornbury tolerates Jews, blacks and American Indians. He's haughty, naughty and stands for the permissive society. This is the culture wars, just set in colonial times and staged in the theater of the ridiculous. The template is dated and the comedy broad, but the cast is solid and the message eternal.
By contrast, The American Plan, at the Samuel J. Friedman, is a dark familial drama that pays homage to Henry James-like characters held hostage by emotional passivity and pain. Here, a strong German Jewish mother who escaped Hitler (a masterful Mercedes Ruehl) and her Sarah Lawrence dropout daughter, the frail but verbally provocative Lili (Lily Rabe), battle on the domestic front.
The time is 1960, and the women are caught between two worlds: post-war horrors and the yet-to-be liberated Sixties. Eva's dangerous motto - "Happiness exists, but it's for other people" - and Lili's strange neurotic moods echo a tag-team of despair. There is one disruption to their summer retreat: Über-WASP Nick Lockridge (Kieran Campion), who buoyantly insists, "I cause happiness - that's what I do." The claim is deceptive; as is much of what appears on the surface. The setting, a pier jutting into a lake, belies the stormy waters below.
When the play was first staged in 1990, sympathy lay with the young 20something dominated by a mother described as a "late Ibsenesque figure with mah-jong tiles." In this revival, Ruehl brings shading to Eva, who understands life's innumerable betrayals.
The American Plan features convincing actors who hold their own, but it's Ruehl who commands the stage. The accent, the walk, captures her complicated character perfectly. All struggle to survive; each is burdened by the past. "The world has a wish for you, and it's never good," explains Eva. Plan ahead: Still waters run deep.
Pre-Post Theater Restaurant: Dhaba
Before or after the theater, consider dining at Dhaba (108 Lexington Ave.) a new Indian restaurant that gives the traditional dhaba, a truck stop just outside large Indian cities, a modern, colorfully chic twist. Located in the Curry Hill section of Manhattan, the intimate 62-seat restaurant specializes in authentic Punjabi cuisine - producing creamy, rich food that brings gourmet flair to Indian cooking. It's beautifully prepared, exquisitely spiced and presented with artistic flourish. After all, 50 of the world's 80 spices are grown in India and Dhaba makes great use of them in dishes as varied as Sarson Ka Saag, a seasoned puree of spinach and mustard greens, Achari Gosht, curried lamb and fresh coriander, Shrimp Malaiwala, spiced shrimp with tomatoes, bay leaf and fennel, and starters like Mirch Pakora, green chili fritters. A separate menu, "London Calling," boasts super-spicy dishes with an Anglo-Indian flavor, such as Chicken Balchao, a Goa curry. And don't miss the Makki Da Roti, pan-grilled corn bread, and the sumptuous mango or rose Lassi Wala drinks. Best of all, the prices are reasonable and the service first-rate.
Dhaba: 108 Lexington Ave., New York, NY