REVIEW: "The Third Story"—Newport Theatre Arts Center

Updated: Apr 11

Three Intertwining Tales about the Breaking of Apron Strings Between Mothers and their Grown Children

It's a romp with all the expected Charles Busch ingredients: plenty of elegant, off-Broadway campy humor, topped off with a couple of drag roles, and now playing through April 17th, top of the hill, at Newport Theatre Arts Center.


As a blowsy screenwriter facing obsolescence with a wink and a tumbler or two of bourbon, Terra Taylor Knudson adds earthy humor, sensational style and an undercurrent of poignancy to the plot. Plot being, superfluous fairy tale segments meshed with a serious gangster film parody. Huh?


Much like “Die Mommie Die!” a previous Busch work, “The Third Story” is highly stylized; characters toss out retro-isms like "dame," "slugged," and "sitting in clover" requiring the average audience member to break out their wordhippo at intermission just to keep up. The show is rife with double entendres: “Afraid of getting busted,” one character declares, "Any minute someone out there is gonna finger me!"


From there, it all gets very meta as the cast enacts the scenes that the mother and son conjure up. Where it gets a little tricky is when most of the actors portray multiple roles, in various time periods and "realities." Ms. Knudson’s Peg does double duty as Dr. Rutenspitz while Ben Green’s ("A Streetcar Named Desire") Drew morphs into sexy gangster Steve Bartlett. Cort Huckabone portrays mob diva Queenie Bartlett, Bartlett's double, and her bizarro doppelganger, Queenie 2, and Jules Ronquillo plays witch/hag Baba Yaga and a truly mesmerizing piece-mealed Zygote, a freakish lab experiment not quite put together right. Rounding out the talented cast is Vita Muccia as gun moll Verna (doubling as Vasalisa), and Lori Kelley, who gives a hilarious turn as the frosty Dr. Constance Hudson.


Ben Green and Terra Taylor Knudson in The Third Story

Here’s the thing: What is undeniably Charles Busch's most psychologically complex play is also his most outrageously convoluted. Simply put: Psychological profundity meets psychopathic lunacy. Now whether you think his aim and ambition have been translated into a good play is the fourth story.


“The Third Story” certainly has its quota of laughs, and it offers, under the guidance of director David C. Carnevale, the kind of giddily grandiose performance(s) that the playwright's fan base will undoubtedly adore. But he didn’t warn us that we would spend the rest of the evening with our mouths half-open in astonishment. I never knew exactly whether to laugh or scream in appreciation of the finesse with which this story within a story within a story catapults into the stratosphere of camp and then parachutes back to the tragicomic earth of human (and inhuman) relations—especially the relationship between child and parent, between invention and inventor, between creation and creator, and between original and copy. Everything moved with such speed and finesse that I am still suffering a bit of whiplash from it all.

Famously fixated with Hollywood legendry and the more dominant female icons of the golden age of film-making, notably those of the 1930s and 1940s, Busch’s opus exists as a living repository of some the most identifiable traits of glamour stars in that era. These have all been extracted and absorbed into a crazy quilt that is far more ambitious in scope than most of his previous drag-immersed works, like, “The Lady in Question,” “Red Scare on Sunset,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and “Psycho Beach Party.” In this case, the Tony-nominated author is lauded yet again for a conglomeration where displaced, disfigured and distressed personalities vie for attention and resolution in their lives.


Ben Green, Lori Kelley & Terra Taylor Knudson

Notwithstanding the collection of handsome ensembles with an array of gorgeous costumes (including a witch's schmata), Busch's extravagant theatrical personas and fictional characters in the play within the play allow room for the evening's dramatic anchors to emerge. As played with mushy-mouthed invectives by Ms. Knudson, Peg is a washed-up screenwriter who once hob-knobbed with such female screenwriting luminaries as Frances Marion, June Mathis and Anita Loos.


She is hoping to convince her son, Mr. Green’s Drew, to collaborate with her in developing a scenario for a gangster flick she hopes to market, which could restore her reputation (or at least pay her bills) and distract her from worrying over the McCarthyite wolfpack tracking her spoor. Her importuning and browbeating arouses a lifetime’s worth of resentment from her son, who has apparently dipped his own toe into the pool of playwriting (his mother, to his chagrin and outrage, uncovers a brilliant script he’s been hiding at the bottom of his sock drawer).


Recrimination, mutual and assured, escalates as mother insults son for his taste in girlfriends and son reminds mother that one needs a scorecard to keep up with all her marital additions and subtractions. There are more figurative bullet holes in this exchange than in the body of Sonny Corleone in the tollbooth scene of The Godfather. But suddenly, both sides set aside their tommy guns to remember, with a whiff of tenderness, how mother would regale son with Russian folk tales when he was a kid.


Lori Kelley & Jules Ronquillo in The Third Story

They spark a flurry of comically dramatized scenarios that imaginatively interpolate various genres, including science fiction, horror, fairy tales, gangster noir and pure melodrama, all of which is woven into the fabric of the main story.

Jules Ronquillo makes a fashion statement as the fabled witch Baba Yaga who helps a princess gain the love of a prince. And Cort Huckabone is at his best as the tough-talking, hard-boiled mob boss Queenie Bartlett (who's dying of cancer), and her discombobulated, robotic twinsy, Queenie No. 2, who causes a number of complications. The clone, like the humorously afflicted zombie Zygote (also played by the gruesomely made-up Mr. Ronquillo), a simpering genetic abomination birthed from a petri dish, is the flawed product of Dr. Constance Hudson, a demented scientist.


Their connection? Zygote steals morphine from the lab to sell to Queenie. When the underworld boss learns that Dr. Hudson has been working on a cloning formula, she hatches a plan to spawn a twin who can continue to protect her son Steve (Mr. Green) from the Feds and his trashy fiancee, Verna (Ms. Muccia).


The laughs come from Cort Huckabone channeling Joan Crawford and Eve Ardon in one glamorous package, and the next minute doing his inimitable patsy-foot shtick walk with Queenie 2. We have Ben Green delineating a stubborn, slow-talking, self-exiled Drew, then spitting out barbs from behind a jaw set in stone as tough guy, mama’s boy, Steve. Jules Ronquillo is a master of the animated slow death mumble while playing the truly crazed, gnarled caricature of a fast-decaying Frankenstein monster, who, among other malformations, has a rather untraditional digestive tract. Ms. Muccia’s amusing anecdotes as the gangster doxy gave me a few doubletakes, constrasting sharply with her delicate, sweet princess. Dr. Rutenspitz’ laid-back indifference in the face of danger seemed oddly humorous, and Dr. Hudson lurching into hilarious overreactions in Act Two had a bit of Madeline Kahn to them—all underscored by Sound Designer Brian Page’s precise pastiche of ’40s melodrama music cues.


Under the expert guidance of Director Carnevale, the three stories (writing process, fairy tale, gun moll/mad scientist) intertwine with each other through a series of wittily wrought sleight-of-hand segues and trompe l’oeil twists. It’s as if the tales, and the actors who tell them, whiz by on jet skis, crisscross in each other’s wake, jump into each other’s controls, and bounce off each other’s waves.


THE THIRD STORY, Presented by NEWPORT THEATRE ARTS CENTER, Performing March 25th through April 17th; Written by CHARLES BUSCH; Directed by DAVID C. CARNEVALE; Assistant Director MIA ANDERSON; Produced by BOB FETES and ANDREW KELLEY; Set Design by JAMES HUFFMAN; Lighting Design by JOSH SERRANO; Sound Design by BRIAN PAGE; Costume Design by TOM PHILLIPS and LARRY WATTS; Wigs by FABY LOPEZ; Stage Manager is JUDY MINA-BALLARD.


WITH: TERRA TAYLOR KNUDSON, BEN GREEN, CORT HUCKABONE, VITA MUCCIA, JULES RONQUILLO AND LORI KELLEY.


Duration: approx. two hours plus with one intermission. Closing date April 17th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM. For Tickets and further information, please visit: https://ntaconline.com/


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report