Clever and campy ‘Ibsen’s Ghost’ Off-Broadway at 59E59

Presented by 59E59 and its resident Off-Broadway theater company Primary Stages in association with NJ’s George Street Playhouse (where it made its debut in January), Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy, as the subtitle implies, is a witty and wildly imagined farce about the life and legacy of the early modern proto-feminist Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Written by and starring the consummately clever and campy Charles Busch, the laugh-out-loud parody is directed by long-time collaborator Carl Andress, with a spot-on understanding and razor-sharp staging of Busch’s legendary over-the-top comedic style.

Charles Busch, Jen Cody, Christopher Borg, Thomas Gibson, Jennifer Van Dyck, and Judy Kaye. Photo by James Leynse.

The riotous tale combines fictionalized versions of some of the real-life characters from Ibsen’s inner circle (his widow Suzannah, her step-mother Magdalene and maid Gerda, his protégée Hanna, publisher George, and illegitimate son Wolf, a sailor who never knew him – along with a clairvoyant rodent-catcher known as the Rat Wife who appears unexpectedly at his home), humorous references to his world-renowned plays (including A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, Ghosts, and Little Eyolf)  and those of other historic playwrights, masterful physical comedy employing hilariously histrionic facial expressions, gestures, postures, and pratfalls, hyperbolic speech patterns, accents, and monologues in Norwegian and an array of foreign languages (with dialect coaching by Rebecca Simon), sexual innuendo and salacious behavior, and satirical descriptions of how highly competitive and challenging a career in the theater can be. It all adds up to one sidesplitting show delivered by a top-notch cast.

Christopher Borg and Charles Busch. Photo by James Leynse.

Set in the 19th-century parlor of Ibsen’s house in Oslo shortly after his death, the story revolves around the desire of Suzannah to have her collection of their personal letters published, but George finds them largely mundane domestic trivialities, with no mention of the plays her husband wrote, so thinks they’re better suited to an archive than a book. She soon discovers that Hanna is also in town in search of a publisher for her disparaging diary about her mentor, which could cause serious damage to his reputation. Adding to the antipathy between the two women is their conflicting claims to have been the inspiration for Nora Helmer, the empowered wife from A Doll’s House and the playwright’s most famous character (in reality, Ibsen’s Nora was based on his close friend Laura Kieler and the actual events that occurred in her marriage). To prevent the release of the damaging memoir – with a title Suzannah finds even more hysterically infuriating – she enlists the support of George, Gerda, and Magdalene, and devises a plan with Wolf, with whom she’s enjoying a sudden passionate liaison, to ensure that the material will never be seen by the public.

Thomas Gibson, Christopher Borg, and Charles Busch. Photo by James Leynse.

Add to that the sub-plots of Gerda’s “degenerative affliction of the spine” and her not-so-secret relationship with the Ibsens’ son Sigurd (the Norwegian Prime Minister), the Rat Wife’s surreal visions, healing powers, and true identity, and the fact that the late Henrik wasn’t the only writer among them, with Suzannah, Magdalene, and Hanna having different levels of commitment and success in the field, and the plot thickens. There is also a happy ending that you’ll never see coming, which is completely uncharacteristic of Ibsen’s plays and even out-feminists him.

Busch leads the comedically gifted company in his uproarious drag portrayal of Suzannah, delivered with melodramatic mannerisms, readily legible reactions, affectations of period-style locution, and his signature impeccable timing. Jennifer Van Dyck as her nemesis Hanna matches Suzannah’s haughty airs, exceeds her in her writing and in her hard-won self-determination, and delivers a tour-de-force account of a significant occurrence at the Hotel Imperiale, where she’s staying, in the native language of each of the characters she quotes, without missing a beat (and again angering Suzannah with her superior linguistic facility).

Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch. Photo by James Leynse.

Judy Kaye as Magdalene is ostensibly there for Suzannah, though mostly sitting and observing in silence, or exchanging pointed insults with her step-daughter and memories of their not always loving past. Thomas Gibson’s Wolf provides an amusing take on the classic image of a romantic hero – strong, masculine, and good-looking, devoted and impassioned, self-taught by reading the works of his absent father and incredibly poetic for a man of his station in his adoring entreaties to Ibsen’s widow (after breaking into their house, more than once). Christopher Borg displays his exceptional range in the dual roles of the diplomatic George Elstad, who must remain loyal to Suzannah to maintain his position as the publisher of Ibsen’s lucrative canon (even though Hanna’s diary would surely be a top seller), and his drag performance as the strange Rat Wife, whose uncanny psychic abilities provide creepy laughs and render him almost unrecognizable from his earlier characterization of George. And the awkward, outspoken, and sexually triggered Gerda, played with full-out relish by the petite powerhouse Jen Cody, steals virtually every scene she’s in and keeps the laughs coming.

Charles Busch and Jen Cody. Photo by James Leynse.

The period-piece parody is enhanced by a lavish Victorian set design by Shoko Kambara (which is also the butt of many jokes in the show), with a central portrait of Ibsen hanging on the back wall of the parlor, trees at the sides, and a grey-toned cityscape that surrounds the room, character-defining costumes by Gregory Gale (Suzannah’s shift from a black mourning dress to a pink dressing gown is especially amusing, as is Hanna’s archery outfit, in a style worn by the men, not the women of the era), and hair, wigs, and makeup by Bobbie Zlotnik (with expert drag stylings). Ken Billington’s lighting changes with the scenes, times of day, and dramatic interactions, and evokes the paranormal activities of the Rat Wife, with evocative sound by Jill BC Du Boff and Ien De Nio.

Primary Stages’ Off-Broadway premiere of the latest work by Charles Busch is a highly entertaining theatrical farce that’s as smart as it is funny, with stellar performances that will keep you laughing and references that will have you thinking and trying to identify the original sources in Ibsen’s plays, so be sure to catch Ibsen’s Ghost before it disappears.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Ibsen’s Ghost plays through Sunday, April 14, 2024, at Primary Stages, performing at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $66-131, including fees), go online.

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