By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In many productions of Shanghai Moon, the Charles Busch comedy now playing at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, the leading character, Lady Sylvia Allington, is played by a man. Busch played the part himself in a successful off-Broadway revival not long ago. At the Pocket, a lady, Trista Wyly, plays the Lady, but she carries it off with the wildly exaggerated gestures, darting looks and jutting hips of a classic drag queen. Like those old movie broads Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow and Mae West, Wyly's Lady Sylvia does a broad (and funny) send-up of the trashy, hard-nippled heroines who sexed up flicks before the censors of the Hollywood Production Code took over.
For most of his plays, Busch lovingly looks to the colorful characters and ridiculous plots of Depression-era movies. He has said one of his inspirations for Moon was The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a soy-saucy 1933 mystery starring Stanwyck and directed by Frank Capra before he turned all warm and fuzzy. Other cinematic references in the play are even more obscure. The bare-bottomed climax of Moon was borrowed from The Cheat, a silent Cecil B. DeMille drama. And the 1940 Bette Davis potboiler The Letter features a similarly weepy courtroom confession scene. Mostly Shanghai Moon is a tribute to a time (pre-Charlie Chan) when the exotic, opium-tinged decadence of "Orientalia,'' as Busch dubs it, fascinated American moviegoers.
Shanghai Moon opens with the noisy arrival of the elegant Lady Sylvia and her stuffy diplomat husband, Lord Allington (Mark Stoddard), at the palatial Shanghai digs of handsome General Gong Fei (Michael Javier). The Allingtons are there to negotiate the acquisition of a rare jade sculpture for the British Museum. The evil Gong Fei has other plans, evident as soon as he lays eyes on the lovely Lady Sylvia. Slipping a mickey to the ailing Lord Allington to get him out of the way, Gong Fei soon has Sylvia all to himself. He hooks her up to a hookah, and with just one puff, she's a raving opium fiend, stripped to her scanties for a hoochie-coochie dance in front of her host.
Strange characters abound in Gong Fei's palace, nicknamed the "House of 37 Pansies.'' Dr. Wu (David Grant) wears a Fu Manchu moustache, quotes Confucius and walks like he's bent under an invisible yoke. Gong Fei's scowling concubine Mah Li (Brandi Riggs) hates Lady Sylvia on sight and conspires to do her in. She starts with Sylvia's beloved lapdog. Handing Mah Li the pooch, the haughty Sylvia orders the servant to "make my dog something to eat.'' She does, serving it up on a silver tray. Lo mein poodle.
Making brief but pivotal appearances are two other characters. Pug Talbot (Michael Rains) is an ambitious opium smuggler in cahoots with Gong Fei and secretly connected to a past indiscretion with Lady Sylvia. Mrs. Carroll (Sally Stoddard) runs a Shanghai brothel and blackmails her enemies.
The plot is as scrambled as the spelling on a takeout menu. Tawdry secrets tumble out about Lady Sylvia's past. Under the influence of the demon poppy, she admits to a less-than-noble background on Chicago's South Side, where there was "only a diet of kielbasa and bitterness.'' Her first words as a baby, she says, were "Get me outta here.'' Sleeping her way up was the only way out. "History was made in the boudoir,'' she purrs to Gong Fei. "That's where I became queen.''
The dialogue recalls the staccato exchanges in those old black-and-white classics. Says Sylvia to Dr. Wu and Mah Li: "Listen, you two fortune cookies, I know you can't stand the sight of me. Well, I've got news for you, that goes double.'' When the scheming Gong Fei is confronted by the old madam, Mrs. Carroll, he snarls, "If you weren't a figure of malevolent evil, you would be the stuff of tragedy.''
It all ends up in murder, natch. Then comes the courtroom scene, overacted spectacularly, as it should be. Lady Sylvia proves her hubby innocent by using a particularly cheeky defense maneuver--a case of the end, in this case her rear end, justifying the means.
Although this is all-out melodrama, Pocket Sandwich Theatre has chosen to forgo its usual popcorn-tossing audience participation, which tends to take all the focus off the stage and place it in the hands of an inebriated crowd using baskets of popcorn as lethal weapons. Playing it straight shows some respect for Shanghai Moon's actors, who are the best this theater has assembled in recent memory. They've spruced up the tech elements, too, with an elegant set by Rodney Dobbs and glam costumes by Jane Goodman. Director David Meyer might have been more creative with the blocking--characters tend to pace in straight lines--but his work is better than Pocket's usual standard.
As Lady Sylvia, Trista Wyly conducts a textbook course in coarse acting. That's a compliment. If there's anything a Charles Busch play shouldn't have, it's a subtle performance by its leading lady. Wyly, her hair the color of cayenne and chin always tipped up to find the best light, throws arms akimbo and strikes poses right out of old movie stills. She gives such a brazenly scene-stealing, high-voltage turn as Lady Sylvia, they must have to roll her out on a gurney when the curtain comes down.