Review: In Charles Busch’s ‘Ibsen’s Ghost,’ a Widow’s Work is Never Done

Review: In Charles Busch’s ‘Ibsen’s Ghost,’ a Widow’s Work is Never Done

Like “Oh, Mary!,” Cole Escola’s hysterical take on Mary Todd Lincoln, Charles Busch’s “Ibsen’s Ghost” follows a notable woman of yore — Suzannah Ibsen, the wife of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen — whose corseted unknowability is mined for mischief. Subtitled “An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy,” this Primary Stages production, in association with George Street Playhouse, at 59E59 Theaters takes what few details are known about Suzannah, a driving force in the playwright’s productivity, and turns her into a campy diva.

The show opens with a widowed Suzannah, saucily played by Busch, mourning the loss of a “conjugal partner of inexhaustible pyrotechnics.” She soon learns how inexhaustible he really was: Hanna (Jennifer Van Dyck), one of Ibsen’s many apparent lovers, emerges and announces her intention to print her scandalous diaries.

Let the catty turmoil commence.

An affair is one thing, but Suzannah can’t abide Hanna’s claim that she — not Suzannah — inspired Ibsen’s feminist icon, Nora Helmer, in “A Doll’s House.” Hanna’s plan also interferes with Suzannah’s attempt to publish 50 years worth of the couple’s personal letters. But, in another blow, Ibsen’s publisher (Christopher Borg) finds their domestic contents too boring to print.

Busch, a master of clutching pearls and fluttering eyelashes, has great fun playing varying states of dismay. Manic, glitch-like tics betray his Suzannah’s matronly composition, and she shocks herself with her indignity. As Hanna’s crusade moves forward, Suzannah becomes even haughtier, hurling vintage insults (“You brazen jezebel!”) across Shoko Kambara’s tasteful, turn-of-the-century drawing room set.

Ibsen’s dramas, heavy on ruinous secrets his characters try to conceal, turn out to be perfect for Busch to cherry-pick in sketching this show. There’s a little bit of “Ghosts,” with the appearance of an illegitimate child (Thomas Gibson) and a bawdy, scene-stealing maid (Jen Cody) whose spinal disorder causes her to walk with a ridiculous pelvic thrust.

Even Ibsen’s lesser known “Little Eyolf” receives some love when Borg returns as another character, a mysterious figure known as the Rat Wife. Pulling from Suzannah’s actual biography, Busch turns her stepmother (Judy Kaye, beautifully at home with Busch’s affected dialogue) into a vamp, a calculating governess who puts the moves on Suzannah’s father. And between the maid’s almost Transylvanian accent, Hanna’s British lilt and the publisher’s Swedish Chef garbles, a treasure trove of tonal absurdity fills the air.

But Busch’s knack for genre is a double-edged sword. Adhering to the specifics of old Hollywood is this drag legend’s bread and butter, as exhibited in his 2020 melodrama, “The Confession of Lily Dare.” But here, Busch sticks too closely to his source material, often leaving us with the feeling we’re watching an Ibsen pastiche with only a slightly farcical twist.

Carl Andress’s jaunty direction powers through the show’s slower patches, especially when the play’s scheming women go for one another’s throats. Ken Billington’s lighting is a marvel of silent film iris shots, catching the whiteness of Suzannah’s face and wig (Bobbie Zlotnik is credited with hair, wig and makeup design) as each scene draws to a cliffhanger close. And the sumptuous period costumes are by Gregory Gale.

As more of Ibsen’s failings come to light, this reliably silly romp inches toward commenting on the hidden women on whom great men build their careers. It’s a nice contemporary touch, though not as trenchant as Busch’s usual assertions on the extravagances of American storytelling.

Ibsen’s Ghost
Through April 14 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; primarystages.com. Running time: 2 hours.

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