David Hanbury grew up in Needham and first hit his stride as a performer with Ryan Landry’s Gold Dust Orphans in Boston and Provincetown. Now a Minneapolis resident, he’s back in town this week playing his popular alter ego, Mrs. Smith, in her thoroughly demented and funny one-woman show, “Mrs. Smith Live!,” at Oberon.
Mrs. Smith is looking for her lost and much-beloved cat, Carlyle. To win public sympathy, she performs an autobiographical cabaret that might remind you of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, or Elaine Stritch. She is assisted by two singing-and-dancing “Broadway Boys,” along with puppets and props. Mrs. Smith also shows off a skill she shares with Hanbury: heavy-metal guitar shredding.
In short, it’s a familiar type of show, but one that seems to have gone off its meds. “What’s really surprising is that there are moments of actual poignancy,” Hanbury said last week.
Q. So it’s been years, and the cat is still missing?
A. He’s still at large, unfortunately. The core story line is her search for him. Performing and creativity and doing a one-woman show are all part of her process, dealing with the emotions of what she calls “the grief and rage of living without him.” But it’s also how she spreads the word, so people can keep an eye out.
Q. Mrs. Smith is a native Bostonian?
A. Beacon Hill, actually. Her dialect is what I’d call finishing-school Brahmin, high Boston. Out here people always ask me, “Is she British?” And I say no, this is the New England accent of finishing school and Wellesley College, way back in the day. Her father was an attorney, and they were well-off for a while, but then calamity struck, and she had to go to live on a farm in upstate New York. And from there it’s a kind of rags-to-riches tale. She got involved in vaudeville, and she and Carlyle got famous, and there’s a storyline through the history of show biz that is told in the show.
Q. She’s been divorced, I gather.
A. Six divorces and 14 husbands. That’s a whole separate show, which tells about each and every one of them and the ways that they died. But she’s left with an easy lifestyle, because they were all wealthy.
Q. How do audiences react to her?
A. Audiences often report the uncanny feeling they have met someone like Mrs. Smith before. People think it’s like someone you would run into at a fund-raiser, a lady of a certain age who has some wealth and is on a few foundation boards, and that’s kind of an entry point for people. “Oh, I recognize this woman.” And then it goes to the deep end of eccentricity and bizarreness with the cat and the performing.
Q. This started with the Gold Dust Orphans?
A. I did “The Gulls,” which was [a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”]. I played the mother character, who was Jessica Tandy in the movie, and I would say that role definitely paved the way for Mrs. Smith. Ryan [Landry] saw something in me. I had never done a female role, so everything was new to me — the wigs, the makeup, everything — but it was really kind of exciting and amazing to transform so far away from yourself. I was a very young-looking 25 or 26, and Ryan saw this thing in me. I was kind of a nervous kid, so maybe that was what it was, but he cast me as these neurotic, postmenopausal women, like nosy neighbors or schoolmarms.
Q. And when did Mrs. Smith arrive on the scene?
A. It was at Ryan’s “Showgirls,” the amateur night he does in Provincetown. I went thinking I can’t compete with these queens with their lipstick and their makeup and their costumes. I’m just not a drag performer, I don’t have the skills. I always approach this stuff as an actor, and I thought maybe I could do a character. I thought, what’s the opposite of a fierce, flamboyant, over-the-top drag performer? What if I just played this older depressed woman who has wandered out onto the stage for some reason and she’s seeking the audience’s help? And I came up with the idea of the missing pet. It was actually Ryan who came up with the name Carlyle. In the wings I asked him what a good name for a cat would be, and he looked at me and said, “What are you doing?!?” And I went on and just played a bunch of minor chords on the piano and danced and cried, and the audience loved it.
Q. Do you get compared to Dame Edna a lot?
A. Of course. Dame Edna, what can you say? This is a master at work. A megastar. What I do is different. I interact with the audience, but Mrs. Smith’s orientation to the audience is very different. Dame Edna has her “possum” thing, and you are there to worship her, and rightly so. Mrs. Smith has more of a need for the audience. [A fellow actor] described it as, “She’s always needing love, and she’s never attractive.”
Interview has been edited and condensed. Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version had the incorrect credit for the photograph. Dan Norman took the photo.