A Night at the Tombs
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 1, 2010
A Night at the Tombs is a solo musical written and performed by Bianca Leigh, and it's about exactly what the title portends. Several years ago, when Leigh was still biologically male, she was arrested for prostitution and incarcerated at New York City's infamous jail. In this show, Leigh talks about and re-creates the events that led to her arrest, as well as the harrowing night and day she spent behind bars (because she was technically a man, she was placed in a cell with homosexual men, for better and worse).
It's not exactly an obvious topic for a joyous musical comedy (though of course neither is a documentary about Jackie O's demented cousins, and that was a hit). It feels like a truthful account, exaggerated for effect here and there; the songs—written by a veritable cornucopia of downtown/queer theatre artists, including Taylor Mac, Ellen Maddow, Jeff Whitty, and others—provide counterpoint to the relatively serious tale with dollops of irony, camp, and out-and-out bracing fun.
And it is relatively serious: underneath the artifice—and really not that far underneath—Leigh has a story to tell about bigotry and tolerance and social injustice that's significant and relevant. Classism and racism and homophobia all contribute to the shoddy way Leigh and her cohorts were treated in jail: there's an especially affecting moment when she recalls a younger transsexual who arrives in the cell, severely ill from heroin withdrawal, that reminds us that rank inhumanity persists in our so-called civilized society.
At the same time there's the requisite fabulousness that a show of this kind calls for. Leigh interacts with the audience easily and comments occasionally on what's going on with a wry archness that's quite fetching. At the preview I attended, Leigh dealt gamely with some costume malfunctions (which I presume are fixed by now), at one point smashing the already-broken fourth wall to bits when she called upon her director Tim Cusack to help her with a troublesome on-stage change. (Cusack's work here, by the way, is smooth and effective, as ever.)
What I was hoping for from this show but didn't get was an authentically deep exploration of what it means to have been, as the publicity materials put it, "a skinny New Jersey boy who dreamed of becoming a great Shakespearean actor [and] ended up as a high-priced dominatrix." Leigh's account of her youth, when she was punished in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for knowing that she was a female trapped in a man's body, doesn't push far beyond generalities. The circumstances that eventually landed her in jail have a certain air of desperation about them: I wanted to know more about a the urgent physical/emotional needs that brought a kid from the suburbs with a degree from NYU into the basement S&M shop of a tough-as-nails dominatrix named Fleur de Lis. In the end, A Night in the Tombs is an entertaining showcase for an expert actress and exquisite personality, but the mysteries below the surface remain unexplained.