Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Ibsen's Ghost

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 14, 2024

Charles Busch and Judy Kaye
Photo by James Leynse
Anyone who thought plays featuring men in drag were on the way out (Pick your poison: Insulting to women? Exploiting transgender stereotypes? Too old hat for words?) should cast their eyes on the current Off-Broadway scene. At this very moment, there are no fewer than four productions with drag performances at their center. There is Deadly Stages, the murder mystery spoof at Theatre Row in which Marc Castle portrays aging Broadway star Veronica Traymore. There is Make Me Gorgeous at Playhouse 46, a bio play about professional female impersonator Kenneth/Kate Marlowe. There is the farcical romp Oh, Mary! at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, in which Cole Escola is drawing accolades for playing the role of Mary Todd Lincoln. And, significantly, these three shows share a common link to actor, playwright, and drag queen extraordinaire Charles Busch, whose own play Ibsen's Ghost opened tonight at 59E59 Theaters.

Long before "RuPaul's Drag Race" was a thing, there was Charles Busch, who has been steadily and gleefully plying his theatrical trade since the 1970s. Broadway fans may recall that he wrote The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which earned him a Tony nomination in 2001, but he is probably best known for film parodies with titles like Die, Mommie, Die!, Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and The Confession of Lily Dare.

Yet while Busch's own performance in Ibsen's Ghost encompasses his hallmark traits of exaggerated, melodramatic femininity and a not inconsiderable amount of facial mugging and upstaging, the play itself is constructed rather like a drawing room comedy. And it is not just a setup to feature its star, because Busch-as-playwright has provided juicy roles that have been generously meted out to the rest of the first-rate cast members.

The work is being billed as "the play Ibsen never wrote, but with more laughs and a happy ending." That much is true, but there is so much more going on within a plot that has more tangents than a convoluted geometry equation.

The story takes place shortly after the death of the renowned Norwegian playwright, who, despite the title, is not actually on hand to haunt the production (though his portrait does overlook the action throughout). His widow Suzannah (Busch), the keeper of the flame of his reputation, learns that someone is in town seeking a publisher for a diary that places the maestro in a tarnished light. Getting her hands on that diary and preventing its publication becomes Suzannah's determined mission.

The Cast
Photo by James Leynse
What ensues is an evening of controlled mayhem and a plunge into the world of absurdism, a master class in comic technique encompassing everything from lowbrow to highbrow humor, pratfalls, farce, witty repartee, satire, sitcom antics, parody, and just plain screwball silliness.

In addition to Busch's delightful portrayal of Suzannah, the production is blessed with terrific performances by Jen Cody as Gerda, a servant in the Ibsen household who suffers from an unusual deformity that brings to mind the character of Igor as played by Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein film; by the always wonderful Judy Kaye as Suzannah's stepmother; and by Jennifer Van Dyck, perfection in the role of Hanna Solberg, who bears that fearsome diary and who claims that Ibsen stole her personal story in creating the character of Nora in A Doll's House. Rounding out the company are Thomas Gibson as Ibsen's illegitimate son whom Suzannah enlists to steal the diary; and Christopher Borg, who doubles as Ibsen's publisher and, later, in drag, as a character known as "the Rat Wife" (don't ask; just see it for yourself!).

Logic doesn't always prevail, but logic be damned, Ibsen's Ghost is a joy ride all the way, with a great company, a lovely set design by Shoko Kambara, glamorous costumes by Gregory Gale, and those wonderful "laughs and a happy ending." What more could you ask for?

Ibsen's Ghost
Through April 14, 2024
Primary Stages in association with George Street Playhouse
59E59 Theatres, Theater A, 59 E. 59th St., New York NU
Tickets online and current performance schedule: