Turner—sometimes listlessly hilarious, sometimes hilariously listless, but often just listless—plays Peg, a blacklisted golden-age screenwriter trying to pull her son and former writing partner Drew back into the game. Busch plays the outsize silver-screen avatars Peg creates, in a pageant of doubling that’s repeated, but never developed, over the course of two very long hours. Turns out Turner and Busch don’t double so much as crowd each other: Dame Kathleen’s sleepy-grumpy, kiss-my-ass irascibility clashes with Lady Charles’s fringe-y brio. In fact, there’s at least one too many of everything in The Third Story: too many stories, too many themes, too many declarations of purpose in this herniated interrogation of the writing process (and, Q.E.D., Busch’s failure to make that process work this time around).
In a two-page (!) author’s note, Busch ticks off the ingredients in this gumbo: gangster flicks, sci-fi B-pictures, clones, the forgotten female screenwriters of pre-Code Hollywood, mothers and sons, the huac era, the thrill of self-creation, and the true meaning of “fabulousness”—the penchant for storytelling, and for making oneself a story. “After two false starts,” Busch notes, “it’s often the third story that takes off.” Yes, but what if the third story is just another draft? The answer is playing right now at the Lortel.