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Oh, Suzannah! “Ibsen’s Ghost” reviewed

Charles Busch’s Suzannah Ibsen is a determined figure, a welcome addition to his tasty hors-d’oeuvres oeuvre.

A portrait of Norway’s greatest playwright looms over the set of Ibsen’s Ghost, receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters in a Primary Stages production. But an even greater specter can be found front and center in this “irresponsible biographical fantasy.” Returning with a new work after a five-year absence, playwright and leading lady Charles Busch attempts to fuse melodrama, drawing room farce, and a downtown sensibility with his signature theatrical flair and tongue-in-cheek humor. Yet the resulting play, overstuffed and undergunned, falls short of the auteur’s best, delivering more confusion than conviviality and lacking a genuine point of view.

The works of Ibsen should prove fertile ground for Busch. In traditional drag fashion, his plays often critique how women have been portrayed onstage by adhering closely to certain stereotypes. Ibsen did much the same in his own plays, showing how women were abused by patriarchal society while participating, directly or indirectly, in the degradation. Lucas Hnath examined this duality with an eagle eye in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and one of Busch’s great forebears, Charles Ludlam, famously skewered Hedda Gabler.

But Ibsen’s Ghost lacks much in the way of a clear point of view. The play opens with his widow, Suzannah (Busch), attempting to cement his literary legacy in the wake of his death. A former translator, she sits on a secret that might alter his stature if it ever came to light. (I won’t reveal what it is here, but when it’s ultimately revealed, it feels rather tame.) Suzannah takes pride in her position as the model for her husband’s most enduring character, Nora Helmer, but that mantle is threatened when Hanna Solberg (Jennifer Van Dyk), one of Ibsen’s former lovers and a writer herself, claims to possess proof that she actually inspired A Doll’s House.

The conflict between Suzannah and Hanna sets in motion a battle of wills, but Busch confounds this central storyline with far too many extraneous strands of plot. Suzannah’s stepmother Magdalene (Judy Kaye), a renowned playwright, comes and goes without adding much to the proceedings. Her maid, Gerda (Jennifer Cody), afflicted with a spinal curvature, exists mostly as a sight gag. A character called The Rat Woman (played in drag by Christopher Borg) gets some of the script’s best lines, but an attempt to give her a more foundational role in the narrative falls flat. Similarly, the presence of Ibsen’s illegitimate son Wolf (Thomas Gibson) seems like an afterthought.

There is likely a sharp and funny work somewhere within the material Busch has already compiled, but as it stands, Ibsen’s Ghost feels like a bulbous first draft. At nearly two hours with an unnecessary intermission, the play starts to sag whenever it finally seems to pick up momentum. Busch also equivocates on the type of play he wants to write. He vacillates between self-aware campiness and serious treatise, and in trying to balance both tones, he achieves neither. Themes worthy of further exploration—like the position of women in society, then and now, and how legacy is constructed—get the short shrift. The end result is neither a genre play nor a comedy that can stand on its own two feet.

The cast contains veterans of Busch’s style like Van Dyk and Borg alongside relative newcomers like Gibson and Kaye. Director Carl Andress, a longtime Busch collaborator, struggles to make everyone feel like they’re performing in the same production. Van Dyk has the most individual success, with an outsize delivery that can turn even stale lines of dialogue into screamingly funny ones. She also looks the part of a deathly serious author in Gregory Gale’s superb period costumes.

Returning to the stage after several decades working mostly in television, Gibson proves a game participant, but the weakness of his role means that he can’t help being underutilized. Kaye, one of the finest stage actors around, seems lost in this milieu, and Cody’s schtick grows tired by the end of the first scene.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, is Busch himself. All the hallmarks are there: his towering figure, zipped into a series of elegant dresses; his cascading red wig; his impish smile and wide, expressive eyes. Yet his greatest asset—his distinctive voice, a mix of whiskey and honey—emerges with an unpleasant mealiness here; even from the fourth row, I sometimes struggled to parse his lines. And although he remains an arresting presence, he doesn’t do anything particularly memorable with his physicality.

Primary Stages supplies a visually appealing production, with a striking set by Shoko Kambara and moody lighting by Ken Billington. Some genuine comedy comes in the form of the pre-show playlist, which features string-quartet arrangements of contemporary songs. (The sound design is by Jill BC Du Boff and Ien DeNio.) But taken in total, Ibsen’s Ghost is neither humorous nor haunting. That’s a shame, because it could have been both.