SHANGHAI MOON * Written by Charles Busch * Directed by Carl Andress * Starring Busch and B.D. Wong * The Drama Dept. at Greenwich House Theatre, New York City, through March 9.

Charles Busch is a unique presence on the American cultural landscape. Two years ago he won a Tony nomination for writing The Tale of the Allergistís Wife, the long-running comedy that starred Linda Lavin on Broadway and then toured the country with Valerie Harper in the title role. Last year he achieved a life-long dream of playing the leading female part in a movie he wrote called Die Mommy Die! which recently had its world premiere at the high-powered Sundance Film Festival. Heís written a new book for Boy Georgeís London hit musical Taboo, which Rosie OíDonnell is producing on Broadway this spring. Meanwhile, he remains devoted to his first love, which is performing onstage as a drag diva in self-written plays that simultaneously satirize and celebrate the old movies he grew up watching on TV. 

Shanghai Moon, his latest vehicle, parodies a peculiar pocket of early B-movies in which brassy American dames rubbed up against period stereotypes of "the mysterious Orient." Busch portrays Lady Sylvia Allington, who arrives in China with her husband, the British consul, and is met by the suave General Gong Fei and his staff, the ancient Dr. Wu and the beautiful young astrologer who loves Gong Fei, Mah Li. A comic melodrama, the play hurtles through a zillion plot twists involving a priceless jade Buddha, drug smuggling, false identities, and suicide by chrysanthemum-sniffing. 

The jokey script and Carl Andressís highly stylized production exemplify state-of-the-art camp, the form of failed seriousness in which the gap between intention and execution is exaggerated for comic effect. Busch has always cultivated a tongue-in-cheek distance from his roles, and you see all the layers here: a man playing some version of Barbara Stanwyck or Mae West playing a ludicrously overblown character.

Busch-the-writer gives Busch-the-actor deliciously outrageous stuff to do, such as an opium-fueled dream sequence that allows him to perform a hoochie-coochie dance in a tiara-topped outfit and a courtroom scene in which a bare butt is the best defense. He is surrounded by some very good actors, most notably B.D. Wong as Gong Fei, hilarious whenever he turns out to the audience to intone any Chinese name (and breathtaking when he strips to the waist). Close in spirit to Charles Ludlamís late lamented Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Shanghai Moon skillfully jumbles together the conventions of stage and screen, silly vaudeville and kidsí play.

The Advocate, March 4, 2003