A Connoisseur of Camp

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Everett Collection, CUNY TV/Youtube, Retailers

Our Home Out West is the sort of ultra-niche, well-crafted parody that a connoisseur of old film and high camp can spend weeks savoring, which is why writer-performer Cole Escola (Hacks, Search Party) graciously decided to release it for free on Thanksgiving. Playing a handful of roles in several wigs and period costumes, Escola presents the aw-shucks story of a young boy and his devoted grandma encountering any number of saloon hussies, deceitful bankers, and overzealous townspeople, framed as “the lost pilot of a heartwarming family western that aired once on Christmas Eve of 1971, never to be seen again.”

“I paid for it out of my own pocket,” Escola tells the Cut of the surprisingly extravagant production. “I wanted to make something for the fun of making it, which is why I also wanted to put it out for free: It needed to be a gift to myself and for the people watching it.”

Featuring an in-the-know ensemble of alt-comedy types like Amy Sedaris, Ike Ufomadu, and Macy Rodman, the half-hour short film is inspired by the works of saucy screen sirens like Mae West, and star vehicles like Marlene Dietrich’s Destry Rides Again. But it also takes a great amount of inspiration from The Waltons, a corny-sweet ’70s television series about a Virginia family struggling through the Great Depression, which Escola binged after hearing Tony-winning campstress Elaine Stritch praise it in an old interview.

The labor of love paid off, with Vanity Fair calling Escola’s performance(s) — which brim with equal parts absurdity and loving attention to detail — one of the best of the year. And, just when it couldn’t get old-school West Village queenier, two weeks after its release, Escola announced their Off Broadway debut in Oh, Mary! a new dark comedy following Mary Todd Lincoln in the weeks leading up to Abe’s assassination. Once again written by and starring Escola, the play will do a limited run in the Village’s famed Lucille Lortel Theatre in early 2024.

“It’s a play in quotes, a little bit,” Escola says. “Because it’s very serious — but it’s not. But it is.” Though dots — the constantly booked design collective behind recent stage hits like Kate Berlant’s self-titled solo show and the Broadway revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window — is working on the sets, Escola assures it won’t be a minimalist production. “Everyone is getting the directive that they’re not designing for a play, but playing someone who’s designing for a play,” Escola adds.

Holly Pierson, who created Our Home Out West’s delicious period costumes will again work with Escola, but their own gowns will be made by Astor Yang. The show might also be Escola’s performing swan song. “Performing is really nerve-wracking,” they say. “I think I prefer writing and, after this play, I might focus on that.”

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

Elaine Stritch Theater Talk interviews and my YouTube homepage. I don’t know, it’s sort of like how any gay people find their culture. I remember when the movie Superstar came out and, at some point, Glynis Johns was watching Gypsy on TV and you see it for, whatever, five seconds and I was like, “What was that?” I must have watched the end credits and written it down, because that’s how I found Gypsy. A lot of that.

You’re hopping in an Uber XL and can bring five celebrities (dead or alive) with you — who’s coming?

Let’s see … It would just be me and Laurette Taylor luxuriating in the back on an Uber XL. My introduction to her was this documentary called Broadway: The Golden Age, where all these actors like Gena Rowlands and Maureen Stapleton talk about seeing her in the original Glass Menagerie and being moved to tears. She did one screen test that’s on YouTube but — and I’m now directly quoting Brian Dennehy in that documentary — she was so natural that people didn’t believe she was acting, so they didn’t use her.

What’s the last meal you cooked for dinner?

Um, I think oatmeal in 2009?

Is it steeped yet?

You’ll have to go to my old apartment and find out. I’m sure it’s still sitting out.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?

I always think about Bernadette Peters splitting half a Kind bar with her assistant. There was some interview — I think in New York Magazine, actually — where they ask her what she cooks and she’s like, “Oh, no, I don’t, really. I try to eat healthy and sometimes, if I want a treat, I’ll split half a Kind bar with my assistant, because then it’s half the calories.”

What is your pre-performing ritual?

Nothing; there’s no salve, no remedy. But Amy Sedaris taught me to try to flip it in my head, like, I’m not nervous, I’m eager. I think it’s a psychological thing: “Nervousness is just excitement,” but …

What’s your comfort rewatch?

I watch Pollyanna once a year, every summer. My favorite is the Hayley Mills one, but then the BBC made one with Elaine Stritch as Aunt Polly, which is strange because that character is very pious and there’s something so modern and cosmopolitan about Elaine that it’s hard to picture her in the backwoods of Virginia during the Depression. Elaine is comforting because I feel like I’m a kid watching something about show business or New York that makes me think, “I want to be that someday.” It just makes me get in touch with something aspirational.

And then Debbie Allen directed a musical version called Polly, too. But whenever I want to cry, I watch the final scene of Stella Dallas — the Barbara Stanwyck one. It always gets me.

Favorite game to play?

I don’t like games. The second a game starts, I think, How long? Maybe a short game you play with one person, like 20 Questions?

What is something you’ll never watch, no matter what?

All I keep thinking of are examples where my friends star or write on them, or they have people I want at my opening night … I hate this business!

Was The Waltons competing against anything when it first aired? That could be it.

Yes, Little House on the Prairie. I won’t watch it. I watched the pilot episode and it’s very masculine. Even though it’s told from Laura Ingalls’s perspective, it’s very much focused on her dad because Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls, was also one of the director-producers. It’s just sort of yeugh. I got the same feeling while watching it that I did when I was a kid and watched I Dream of Jeannie, where I was like, “This is just Bewitched …”

What music do you listen to when you’re alone?
I listen to music when I’m alone or when I’m hooking up with someone, and I don’t listen to the same music in those circumstances. It’s something that I struggle with because when I have someone over, what I listen to is literally Ethel Merman in Las Vegas, so I’m like, “Well, the sound quality was bad from that night.”

What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?

Charles Busch’s memoir, I read it so fast. I’m sad and angry that I did that. It was one of those things where I was reading it and thinking, “Oh my God, this is so well-written.” And then I remembered, duh, he is a writer. That’s how good a performer he is, that you forget he’s also a prolific writer.

Are you engaging with Barbra Streisand’s memoir at all?

I have 36 hours left of the audiobook; she’s doing On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and talking about how much she regrets giving away some of the costumes. This book, of course, is mostly descriptions of food, descriptions of clothes, remorse for things that she didn’t buy, remorse for things she bought and then sold, then bitterness at her mother. And lastly, her repeating the word truth.

What’s the best or worst advice you’ve ever received?

“Just swallow.”

Is that best or worst?

I’ll let the reader decide.

What’s the one film that you recommend for someone who needs a little convincing in the classic melodrama department?

Baby Face, it’s one of my favorite films; I love pre-code movies. That was, I think, the first old movie I saw with an audience, maybe at some Barbara Stanwyck retrospective at BAM. It got so many laughs and I realized these things are supposed to be funny. I’m glad there was a meme of it for a while of her pouring hot coffee on some guy’s lap.

Oh, and All That Heaven Allows — specifically that moment where she looks at her reflection on the television and realizes she’s made the wrong decision in life and is going to be alone.

Favorite piece of art you own?

Marlene Dietrich’s card from the New York Public Library. I found it on eBay from some old queen who’d stolen it. It’s not the card she used to check out books, but the one they kept on file at the library. She signed it and it has her address, which is how I, personally, verified that it was authentic because I know her address: 993 Park Avenue. Anytime I’m on the Upper East Side, I slow down as I walk by the front door and think, “She walked here, she walked here, she walked here …”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Connoisseur of Camp