LA JOLLA -- Imagine Joan Crawford's stately glamour, Susan Hayward's tough-broad shtick and Carol Burnett's parodic flair all rolled into the same male actor. Yes, the one and only Charles Busch is back on stage, starring in your garden-variety science-fiction gangster melodrama meets Russian fairy tale.
And that's not all that's stuffed into "The Third Story," Busch's latest vehicle, written by and for himself to showcase his inexhaustible drag ingenuity. The play, which had its world premiere Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse with a game-for-anything cast, offers a collection of B-movie scenarios -- spinning melodramatic plates, really -- that crash in a wacky fictional heap.
The subject under investigation is the relationship between mothers and sons -- or a scientist and a lab monstrosity in the case of one of the plot lines. This isn't exactly D.H. Lawrence territory, although Oedipal issues run riot.
The central question concerns separation -- how do you pull away from the person who made you when neither of you is fully prepared to cut the cord? The way Busch sees it, men are all mama's boys and "a woman of achievement . . . istruly the most vulnerable of God's creatures."
Let's back up to the beginning. Picture a deep, dark Slavic forest. An old crone named Baba Yaga (Busch decked out like a "Harry Potter" extra) meets a pathologically shy princess (Rebecca Lawrence), who's desperately in love with a prince. A hopeless cause, but sinister Baba has a plan: She'll turn the girl into a block of wood, carve her in two and send her newly formed gregarious twin to woo the prince for her.
What could be simpler?
Now whisk your mind to a modest living room in Omaha, Neb. The year is 1949. Peg (Mary Beth Peil), a screenwriter years past her prime, is trying to persuade her adult son, Drew (Jonathan Walker), to come out of his self-imposed Hollywood exile and collaborate with her on a new script.
Peg wants to get back to the golden days when she had studio cred and chummed around with powerful Mary Pickford. But Drew, who's taken a job with the postal service, is through with the biz. He's content to be sprawled on the couch with Dickens, until Peg announces she has uncovered an unfinished play of his that she thinks will be a perfect project for them.
Here's where things really get screwy. Drew's script, which has been unfolding onstage like an alternative reality, revolves around a Los Angeles mobster named Queenie Bartlett (Busch draped in old-school Chanel), who's dying and doesn't want to leave her son, Steve (Walker again), to fight those lousy feds himself.
Queenie's morphine supplier, a botched science experiment named Zygote (Scott Parkinson), hooks her up with the doctor who spawned him, Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck). Dr. Hudson appears willing to test her cloning theories, until she finds out the extent of Queenie's criminal depravity and her envious colleague, Dr. Rutenspitz (Peil with a Middle European accent and glasses), steps into the breach.
Sorry to have to pull the plug, but a dizzy spell has made it impossible to keep synopsizing like this. Let's just say by the time Busch enters as Queenie II, one has given up on sense and is merely grasping for sensibility.
Trouble is, the comedy is on a low boil and these crackpot tales take forever to cook. When Busch is onstage, looking like a shopworn Mildred Pierce, there's a steady simmer of laughter, but other than a couple of antic bits with Parkinson's Zygote, whose hygiene habits should not be disclosed, hilarity never kicks in.
The scenes between Peg and Drew, written in the snappy lingo of a bygone movie era, are particularly inert, and under Carl Andress' direction Peil and Walker play their roles monotonously straight. If you're not captivated by this parent-child pair, it's hard to care about any of the fanciful flights that ensue.
David Gallo's fluid set design moves between fable and potboiler with whimsical skill. But the production may be too polished for the material, just as the play seems over-elaborate for its twisted Hallmark theme.
The moral: If you love something, set it free, even if you're packing heat and can protect it like no one else.
"The Third Story," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: Oct. 19. $36 to $62. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.