Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch.  Credit James Leynse

Cynthia Harris and Charles Busch. Credit James Leynse

Take my advice: Never go to the theater with someone who stages scenes in real life. The true diva puts the drama onstage, transforming histrionics into heroism.  Witness Charles Busch.

“The Tribute Artist,” a world premiere commissioned by Primary Stages, a theater dedicated to supporting playwriting, is essentially a departure for Busch. Unlike previous plays where he portrays a woman, here Busch plays a male character. Drag is not gratuitous but comes out of the necessities of the plot, which has him pretending to be his landlady. Not all that far-fetched given the lengths people go to in real life in order to hang onto their Manhattan property.

The play combines contemporary topics – American transgendered teens; New York City real estate; body parts sold on the black market — with trademark retro style.

The set is the lavishly decorated parlor of a Greenwich Village townhouse that looks like something out of a Hollywood movie set, or the game of Clue.

In the opening scene, Rita (Julie Halston) “a hapless lesbian real estate agent” (in Halston’s words), is trying on a gown designed by Adriana, an elderly European fashion designer living like “exiled royalty” behind the walls of her West Village mansion. Adriana disparages Rita as “common clay” in contrast with Rita’s friend and Adriana’s boarder, who has genuine style. On cue, Jimmy (Charles Busch) makes his entrance in drag as Adriana, down to the wig and accent.

When Jimmy announces he’s been given the “Vegas finger” — fired from his job in the Boys Will Be Girls revue – Busch takes the opportunity to lament the death of drag. Today his Marilyn is mistaken for Christina Aguilera. It’s only a matter of time before Cher and Liza hit the chopping block. “My expiration date,” Jimmy declares, “is the same as the legendary ladies I impersonate.”

“You’re a gorgeous drag queen,” Adriana compliments him; “I’m a tribute artist,” he replies. But Adriana’s wig doesn’t fit into his repertoire. “You never know says the widow,” foresees Adriana – which becomes a refrain throughout the play.

Exposition is handled deftly, as Adriana regales Jimmy and Rita with her story of the man who got away – Rodney Ash – who was young enough to be her grandson and got around her “Faberge egg of a heart,” while Rita and Jimmy replay their shared history — a riff on the longtime comic collaboration of Halston and Busch, who first teamed up onstage in 1984 in “The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” Scene 1 ends with Adriana’s vision of her dead husband’s repugnant relatives: a niece with pig eyes and blubber lips. A foreshadowing!

When Adriana dies in her sleep, the pals join forces to undertake a bold scheme that has Jimmy pretending to be Adriana so Rita can sell her townhouse worth millions.   “Desperation gives you the guts” could be a New Yorker’s motto.

There’s a touching moment where Jimmy, addressing his dead landlady, expresses genuine gratitude: “You took me in,” he says, revealing the outsider underneath the mask, and we feel that he has Adriana’s blessing.

All they need is a fake ID to pin on the corpse; Rita just happens to have one. The plot contrivances work because they’re character-driven. “It’s fool-proof! We’re geniuses!” they congratulate themselves, and everything’s set to go awry.

Complications ensue when the repugnant relatives from the Midwest descend on the scene. Embodied in the very funny Christina (Mary Bacon), she of the pig eyes and blubber lips, a recognizable portrait of an angry, self-absorbed woman, who feels the world is out to get her – determined to block the sale of the house that legally belonged to her dead uncle, which he bequeathed to her. When she “shares” her annual Christmas letter listing her misfortunes, from stubbing her toe to losing her hair salon job and no longer being able to afford moisturizer or HBO, it really brings home what Becket said: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Christina is accompanied by her daughter, er, son – Rachel, now Oliver (Keira Keeley), believable as a transgendered teen, who wants nothing more than to get her mother to accept him and who instantly bonds with his great-Aunt Adriana, intuitively sensing they have something in common. Needless to say, all move in.

To add to the mix, Rodney (Jonathan Walker), the former stud, middle-aged but still sexy if down and out, whom Oliver manages to locate thanks to Facebook, shows up and quickly ascertains that Adriana is not who she appears to be and threatens blackmail, or worse, if he doesn’t get all the dough.

Act I curtain has Jimmy absurdly exclaiming, with childlike hope: “I have a boyfriend!” Director Douglass Andress captures the delicate balance between the ludicrous and the poignant in the heroic hijinx of this archetypal gang of outsiders all vying with one another for our sympathy.

Act 2 takes absurdity to its logical limit. Christina – a hair stylist, don’t forget – restyles Adriana’s wig, allowing Busch another grand entrance in a Marilyn number from Some Like it Hot. Suffice to say the planned orgy designed to pair off Christina with Rita and Rodney with Jimmy backfires. It turns out each of them has a dirty secret and is a kind of impersonator. When Rodney shows up in the middle of the night lugging a body bag, spied on by Oliver, I could not help but feel the spirit of Joe Orton channeled from “Loot” hovering over the proceedings.

In the classic revelation scene, Rodney is exposed by Oliver as a would-be murderer-scoundrel. Jimmy in turn is outed by Rodney.Everyone is revealed to be an imposter, and in an ironic twist, the straight man is the real fake. As preposterous as the plot twists are, there remains an undercurrent of naturalism.

Jimmy makes the shocking realization that the more he is himself, the more he is accepted. Famous lines uttered by Hollywood movie stars of yore from Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon to Bette Davis in Now Voyager to Roz Russell in Picnic are seamlessly woven into the fabric of contemporary dialogue so that if it weren’t for annotation, courtesy Rita:  “The majority of people in the room wouldn’t recognize your references.” Norma Shearer blurs into Bette Davis. The tribute artist speaks.

In the most surprising twist, the hard-luck niece proves to be a lucky survivor who finds the guts to make a life-changing decision to sell her dead aunt’s townhouse, splitting her share of the sale with Rita and Jimmy, and to finally accept Oliver, announcing she’s got a gift for her son, something he really wants – a tux.

“We’re New Yorkers,” declares the tourist in town one month. She’s earned the title. You could say the show is a tribute to the heroic resourcefulness of Us.

There’s something life-affirming and big at the heart of this little farce, which is really a naturalistic play in disguise. The dialogue fairly glitters with one line zingers flung back and forth. If Oscar Wilde were here, he’d be smiling. Joe Orton would be honored. Not to mention all those “embattled heroines” Busch exalts from the silver screen. Take a bow.

The Tribute Artist

Written by Charles Busch; directed by Carl Andress

WITH: Charles Busch (Playwright/Jimmy), Mary Bacon (Christina); Cynthia Harris (Adriana), Julie Halston (Rita), Keira Keeley (Oliver/Rachel), Jonathan Walker (Rodney)

Scenic design by Anna Louizos; costume design by Gregory Gale; lighting design by Kirk Bookman; sound design by Jill BC Du Boff; original music by Lewis Flinn; wig design by Katherine Carr; production stage manager Trisha Henson; production management Mind The Gap. Casting by Stephanie Klapper; Casting Press Representative Keith Sherman & Associates; General Manager Toni Marie Davis; Associate Artistic Director Michelle Bossy. Primary Stages Founder and Executive Producer Casey Childs; Artistic Director Andrew Leynes, Managing Director Elliot Fox. Presented by Daryl Roth and Ted Snowdon, in association with Jamie deRoy. At 59E59 Theaters, Primary Stages 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, Through March 16, 2014. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.