Finally: The annual Buffalo United Artists Summer Camp is in session.
That’s “camp,” outrageous theater, the kind with “perversely sophisticated appeal” that is BUA’s trademark, often mediocre – and often classic – plays made wildly funny, parodies, satires, burlesque, some written that way, others adapted by the talented BUA company for their LGBT base by the likes of Todd Warfield, Chris Kelly and a corps of others. Nothing is sacred, nothing off-limits. All this in now air-conditioned splendor.
BUA’s latest is a British import, “Bette & Joan: The Final Curtain,” devised by Sarah Thom, Sarah Toogood and James Greaves. This production, a two-hander featuring Buffalo’s leading drag performers, Christopher Standart and Jimmy Janowski as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively, is the first one in America. It’s a coup for BUA’s Javier Bustillos; the new theater season will be his 24th at the helm.
The original “Bette & Joan” starred the two Sarahs, so the BUA version, Standart and Janowski at their absolute distaff best, is quite a departure.
But, no surprise here. Think back to “The Birds Attack,” “The Bad Seed,” “Rebecca,” “Mommie Queerest” – only a few of Janowski’s greatest hits – and Standart’s memorable gender-bending roles at the Alleyway, Subversive and elsewhere. Having them both on stage at once is too good to miss. “Bette & Joan” is perfect summer camp fare.
The story is that of the long-standing feud between Davis and Crawford, Hollywood icons, screen queens of the 1930s and ’40s, their rantings, jealousies, terrible invective said, heard and denied. Joan had been dead for years when the play begins. When Bette first heard of Joan’s death, she famously said: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
So when the end is near for Bette in 1989, who should arrive from the beyond to “ease” her passing, but Joan, sent by those Tinseltown gossips, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. It’s too much for Bette.
Janowski’s lithe Joan, impeccably coiffed and garbed – my wife has always envied Jimmy’s purses – brings out the worst in Standart’s dying Bette as barbs fly and accusations mount. “You slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie,” Davis yells.
Joan brings up a series of Bette’s scandals and her multiple marriages (Joan had a few of her own). More than once, “Bette & Joan” turns edgy and audiences learn more about this catty duo and their similarities – insecurities, fears, each with tell-all books by their offspring and constant need for reinventing themselves. Janowski alludes to these discoveries in post-play commentary; disturbing serendipity for actors and audiences alike, it seems.Much of the tumult centers around their hit movie together, when they both needed remembering: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Bette’s favorite part was when she got to push wheelchair-bound Joan down the stairs. And great minutes recalling Joan’s Oscar-winning title role in “Mildred Pierce,” a part Bette refused: “I wasn’t going to be in a dyke movie,” she said. Vicious minutes come fast and furious.
Director Warfield just lets Janowski and Standart, two extraordinary talents, do their thing, their textbook timing, looks that could kill and double-takes need little help. But Warfield’s steady hand is everywhere and he knows what works and what doesn’t.
Movie buffs will love this twisted ode. Listen for classic lines including “What a dump!,” from “Beyond the Forest,” and watch for the famous two cigarette hand-off to Davis from “Now, Voyager.” Trivia. But, the trio of playwrights did their homework.
The night uses several minutes of video – Hopper and Parsons (Standart and Janowski doing double duty) cackling from the afterlife, and one might argue that the harsh, repetitive and sometimes inaudible films are superfluous. No harm done,but they aggravate.
What: “Bette & Joan: The Final Curtain”
Where: Buffalo United Artists, Main Street Cabaret, 672 Main St. (Alleyway Theatre)
When: Through Aug. 16
Info: 886-9239, buffalobua.org