WHEN THE PLAY’S NOT THE THING, BUT THE ACTING SHINES
by Harvey Perr
published August 1, 2008
now playing in
Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse
through August 3
now playing in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theater
through August 31
In the theater, the first-rate performer still holds sway over the second-rate play.
I was reminded of this recently when asked by someone what she should see if she sees only one play in New York. I did not recommend August: Osage County or South Pacific, but
Boeing-Boeing. Why? Because Mark Rylance
gives one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that, quite simply, must be experienced to be appreciated. Boeing-Boeing is not a great farce – I’m not even sure it’s a good one – but to be in the presence
of Mr. Rylance’s artful shenanigans makes it a totally satisfying evening of theater.
And, here in L.A., where I am on vacation from the theater for the summer, I recently saw two actors do yeoman work in material
that tested but did not stretch their abilities, but the brilliance with which both actors met the challenges that the authors did supply
In Rose, Martin Sherman, the author of Bent, has tried to tell the history of the Jews from shtetl through the
Holocaust through the Exodus to Israel and coming to America and finally the management of a Miami hotel that eventually becomes a
retirement home, all encompassed in a single character. If Sherman had a sense of humor, he
might have written a Jewish Auntie Mame, but he wants to embrace the heartbreak, which is
an honorable enough endeavor, but predictability keeps the tragedy at bay. It is daunting to
sit through almost three hours which yields few surprises, once you see what it is Sherman is trying to do. If Sherman had written less – much less – and delved more deeply, when he chose instead to be glib, then
her story might have become more universal drama, rather than the compilation of clichés it ultimately adds up to.
But in its current production at L.A.’s Odyssey Theater, under Judy Chaikin’s beautifully calibrated direction, Naomi Newman
infuses Rose with radiant power and consistently makes the character interesting, even when the play fails her. For one thing, it is extraordinary to see a 78-year-old actor play an 80-year-old- woman, and, above all,
to see, in her, all the sexual vibrancy not only in her memories of the past but in her presence today before us. The play gets better as its subject matters get less significant – which is, in itself, a fascinating
process to behold – but Ms. Newman gets so deeply inside Sherman’s creation that she transcends all that is potentially irritating in the
play. This is a warm, generous, often startling, always absolutely true piece of
acting. No playwright could have asked for a more graceful, intelligent and moving
And at the Pasadena Playhouse, which is, incidentally, one of the loveliest theater in the entire country, there is a play about
an imagined event in the last days in the life of Tallulah Bankhead, whose legend was printed far too long before her demise, and who seemed
doomed to spend most of her life perpetuating it. The play is called Looped, and it is
by Matthew Lombardo, who clearly has a penchant for this sort of thing, since he apparently had something of a success with a play called
Tea at Five, about an imagined event in the life of Katherine Hepburn. It would be
difficult to say that this new play comes anywhere near revealing anything about Bankhead that might make us look anew at either the legend
or the woman. But Lombardo, too, has an interpreter of his material for which he should be
humbly grateful. Her name is Valerie Harper and she is, to put it simply,
wonderful. She captures perfectly the vocal inflections and qualities – somewhere between a
Southern drawl and a touch of affected British refinement – and the style – the wobbly movements under the weight of the mink coat, the
throaty laugh, the almost self-conscious and comic absorption in her own mannerisms. But this
is not merely an impersonation. It is a loving portrait, going more deeply into the character
than the material allows.
Although the play’s premise – that Ms. Bankhead has to “loop” some lines for her last film, Die! Die! My Darling!, months
after she has finished and forgotten the film – promises a journey into campiness, Lombardo does try to move into richer areas – largely,
by concocting a contretemps between Bankhead and the director of the looping session in which Bankhead reveals some tortured truths about
herself and the young director gets an opportunity to see the woman behind the mask. It is
only when he, in turn, is forced to face his own problems that the play truly turns to mush.
What is revealed may be new to the character, but the audience has been there too often to do anything but hope that it passes.
But one of the facts that does come up is that Tennessee Williams wanted Bankhead to play Blanche DuBois in the original
production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a part she refused. Years later, when she was
too old to play the part, she played it anyway – at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse and in New York’s City Center – and is remembered for
its doomed recklessness. Here, Ms. Harper gets a chance to show how beautifully Bankhead
understood the role in her heart even if she couldn’t carry it out in performance and, in doing so, gives her own burning audition for the
part herself. Ms. Harper’s reading is complex, poetic, bold and all too brief. When one comes across an actress as good as Valerie Harper, who is seen here at her very best, it
shouldn’t surprise anyone that the idea of her playing Blanche really whets one’s appetite.
But in the meantime, her Bankhead is good enough.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com