In our post-RuPaul world, drag queens aren't the shockingly big deal they once were. Often portrayed as asexual bundles of press-on nails, glamazon makeup, and scathing wit, drag queens are more frequently seen as "edgy" marketing devices or talk-show staples than as actual human beings. But in TOSOS II's revival of Lanford Wilson's historic one-act "The Madness of Lady Bright," performer Michael Lynch cuts through the campiness to deliver a touching character study of a drag queen on the verge of a breakdown.
That's not to say the show isn't campy. Originally performed at the Caffe Cino in 1964, "The Madness of Lady Bright" speaks through a pre-Stonewall kind of camp -- the kind peppered with Loretta Young references and jokes about, ahem, "social diseases." In it, Leslie Bright (Lynch), an effeminate gay man cooped up in his tiny New York apartment, desperately dials his rotary Princess telephone, hoping any of his friends will pick up. But when even Dial-a-Prayer won't answer, the Lady Bright sinks deeper into a pit of self-doubt and loneliness, tormented by memories that play themselves out onstage.
Lynch brilliantly sidesteps the pitfalls of playing a campy drag queen; sheathed in a satin kimono, he manages to avoid over-the-top buffoonery, offering instead a touchingly coy and fragile Lady Bright. In fact, Lynch anchors the play as memories (usually involving encounters with "gentleman callers") swirl on and off the Duplex Cabaret Theatre's tiny stage. Unfortunately, these reminiscences -- performed by two actors playing multiple characters -- often lack specificity. Transitions between these scenes are almost nonexistent, creating a confusingly nebulous world.
But through it all, Lynch holds the show together, clinging tightly to both his kimono and Wilson's still-resonant text. And though public opinion of drag queens may have changed over the years, the story of humanity remains a constant.
Presented by TOSOS II in association with Peculiar Works Project at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, 61 Christopher St., NYC. Oct. 7-Oct. 29. Sat. and Sun., 7 p.m. (212) 255-5438 or www.theduplex.com.