She saved her people with an incredible feat of daring and determination. Judith of Bethulia’s seduction and beheading of the Assyrian general Holofernes has inspired paintings, films and countless other works of art. Now comes Charles Busch’s cross-dressing romp, “Judith of Bethulia” at the Theater for the New City, in which the biblical heroine, performed by the playwright, becomes a gleeful combination of Sarah Bernhardt, Mae West and a modern Jewish mother. The 10-member cast includes Jennifer Cody, Jennifer van Dyck, Mary Testa, Billy Wheelan and John Wojda.
In the play, directed by Carl Andress, a glamorous redheaded widow finds herself singlehandedly responsible for repelling the Assyrians, who aim to use Bethulia as a port of entry to conquer Judea. Meanwhile, a young poet-turned-soldier gets involved with a prostitute, Naomi, whom Judith takes under her wing. Anything goes; even an evil eunuch grows his genitalia back.
As a playwright, Busch was represented Off Broadway last summer with “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” a Passover-themed comedy that took place in a Manhattan apartment building. He is best known for his long-running, Tony-nominated comedy, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which originally starred Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts. But Busch first leapt to prominence in the 1980s with his transvestite send-ups of movie actresses, in memorable Off-Broadway shows like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Psycho Beach Party,” and, more recently, “The Divine Sister,” in which he played a nun.
In an interview, Busch told The Jewish Week that he based “Judith of Bethulia” very loosely on the Book of Judith, part of the Christian Orthodox and Roman Catholic bibles, but not part of either the Jewish or Protestant canon, despite being somewhat parallel to the Book of Esther in centering on a heroine who triumphs over a much stronger male adversary. He also looked at many famous paintings of Judith, by Botticelli, Caravaggio, and others. And he found the original text on which D.W. Griffith’s based his 1914 Biograph epic, “Judith of Bethulia,” starring Blanche Sweet as Judith, which was one of the first feature films made in this country.
Portrayals of Judith in art and literature have changed drastically over the centuries, Busch pointed out, in line with developing societal views of women. “From a tragic heroine, she’s become a sexually voracious woman,” he said. “She went from being a pure virgin to a sexual predator.”
In constructing his own portrayal of the title character, Busch recalled, he thought back to late-19th century historical tragedies written by French dramatists like Victorien Sardou, in which Bernhardt often took center stage. (A one-act play by Busch, “Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium,” is a spoof of one of the most famous of these, Sardou’s “Theodora.”)
But Busch was also inspired, yet again, by the Golden Age of Hollywood. “I imagined Mae West in a Cecil B. DeMille film,” he said, “playing a cheap dame from the Left Bank of the River Jordan. I wanted to thrust a tough-talking gal like Barbara Stanwyck into a biblical epic.” He then threw some Jewish humor into the mix, making Judith sound, he noted, “like a contemporary Jewish matron.”
Above all, Busch said, he relishes playing powerful women. “Every one of these women starts out one way and reinvents,” he said. “She finds great strength in some essential part of herself.”
“Judith of Bethulia” runs through April 28 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $25, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.