Grandiose and gaudy and god-what-a-gorgeous-mess, Tallulah Bankhead consumes all the air in the rose-choked dressing room she occupies in Queen of Clubs, and yet hers is not the most outsize personality on the Church Street Theater stage.
Or is it? The only character who might outvamp Paula Gruskiewicz’s larger-than-life Tallu is John C. Bailey’s strangely antagonistic Female Impersonator, a Pan-Caked phantom who stalks the star through the backstage shadows, mocking the real thing as she readies herself for a critical opening night. And so in one way or another it’s always Tallulah at center stage, the camp goddess or the caustic parody thereof, and it’s the parasitic interdependence of imitated and imitator that’s at issue in this intriguingly off-kilter one-acter.
It’s 1956, the curtain is about to go up on the premiere of a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, and a past-her-prime Bankhead is desperate to put aside the outre persona she’s spent years cultivating, to re-establish herself as a serious actress. Like the ghost of her father (and a handful of other troubling shades), Bailey’s drag queen is there and not quite there in the dressing room as Bankhead stabs at her face with the tweezers and the eyebrow pencil, keeping up a feverish nervy chatter with the one real friend who’s come to offer support and with the memories that offer anything but. Half overheated allegory, half embittered acolyte, ready to take a swipe at his muse along with each slug of bourbon and each drag on his ever-present cigarette, the Female Impersonator is the embodiment of the terror that has driven Bankhead to this moment; whether she can see him or not—and the play never quite decides—the fact of his existence is confirmation enough that she’s become more artifact than artist, that the audience won’t be able to see Streetcar’s Blanche past the sheer undisciplined clutter of Tallulah.
Queen of Clubs spends a good bit of time dwelling on why Bankhead ever drifted so far in the direction of self-parody—the answer, apparently, has to do with her insatiable appetite for attention, which itself has to do with the child Tallulah’s treatment at the hands of Dear Old Dad (and Mom, too)—but it’s the Female Impersonator’s reasons for wanting Bankhead to fail that seem to interest playwright Frank Donnelly most. Once you realize why he’s hovering so closely, always watching, always unseen, the equation becomes obvious: Her crashes are the stuff that his career is made of.
That’s the intriguing thing about Queen of Clubs, and that’s the trouble with it, too. The notions Donnelly is playing with here—that celebrity-worship has an inevitable element of schadenfreude, that drag homage can be as much about insult as adulation—may be enough to sustain a characterization, but they probably don’t represent enough of a concept to build an entire play on. And it’s the latter half of this duality that Donnelly and his bitter Impersonator exploit most vigorously— which makes you wonder only how universal a phenomenon Donnelly thinks it is.
Once Donnelly’s intentions become clear (and that happens about a third of the way through Queen of Clubs’ 90-minute span), the evening can go in only one direction; there’s no point in having a vengeful queen loitering about the place if things are going to end on an upbeat note. That director Jeff Keenan and his cast keep things fairly lively on the way to Bankhead’s humiliation is a testament to his smooth, unshowy inventiveness and their generally agreeable performances.
Gruskiewicz is the production’s chief asset, of course, mercurial and vibrant and raw, sensual and throaty one minute and girlishly manipulative the next—and it should not go unreported that hers is a sensational pair of legs. Nearly as impressive an edifice is Lou Stancari’s set, which turns the stripped-bare Church Street stage into a multilayered backstage warren of star dressing room, bit-player holding pen, lighting platform, and even a snippet of wing for Bankhead to balk in; Keenan keeps his supporting players moving quietly, restlessly around its murky spaces, suggesting the hum and bustle of a working theater without ever pulling focus from the antics front and center.
Lynn Steinmetz cuts a tart, well-tailored figure as Bankhead’s steadfast actress friend Estelle Winwood, one of the few characters who actually occupy the play’s here and now with its protagonist; Chris Brophy’s courtly, cagey Tennessee Williams is most memorable among those who step in and out of her past. (The list includes Noel Coward, so that’s saying something.)
The play’s tendency to shoehorn exposition and explanation into dialogue occasionally feels like the device it is; you’d think the Tallulah lore might be more effective delivered by the drag queen as part of his act, except that Donnelly has tried as much in a few places, and even on opening night, with what seemed like a fairly lively house, the lines didn’t seem to land as explosively as he’d expected them to.
The trouble may be in the transitions from Tallulah’s actions to the Impersonator’s reactions, several of which could be snappier. Or it may be that the play’s fleeting effect has something to do with Bailey’s almost deliberately ungainly performance. The character talks a great deal about how troublesome it can be to build an authentic impersonation—a decent wig, the right placement for the falsies, the importance of real liquor over watery tea in the highball; it’s the stuff of obsession and craft, of a twisted kind of art and its very particular votaries. But Bailey, with his heavy-footed gait and his square-shouldered stance and his unflattering black cocktail dress, makes the Impersonator so ungraceful a creature that you’re ultimately not sure how much of his rhetoric to believe. He doesn’t look as if he cares much about his act; why does he talk so much about it?
Even leaving aside the question of why a queen would keep spending so much energy to create the image of a star he’d come to loathe—and that’s a question Donnelly never gets around to asking, let alone addressing—the play falters on that disconnect between its two central figures. “Nobody can be exactly like me,” Tallulah Bankhead is supposed to have boomed once. “Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.” The disappointment about Queen of Clubs is that no one in it—not even Tallulah—seems terribly interested in trying. CP