Friday, February 27, 2009

Review for "Our Leading Lady"

Gillian Doyle (as Laura Keene) and Carla Valentine (as Wu Chan)

Comedienne extraordinaire Carol Burnett once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” an adage which playwright Charles Busch proves spot-on in his hilarious backstage farce Our Leading Lady, now playing at The Neighborhood Playhouse in Palos Verdes Estates. The tragedy is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, only days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. In imagining the backstage shenanigans taking place in the hours leading up to that fateful performance of Our American Cousin, starring real-life actress-manager Laura Keene, Busch has written an outrageously funny play which finds comedy out of national tragedy—and serves as an affectionate love letter to the theater as well.

The repertory company of Ford’s Theatre have decidedly mixed reactions to the presence of Keene (Gillian Doyle) amongst them.  Southern belle Verbena De Chamblay (Kathleen Taylor), a self-described “actress of great accomplishment” is none too pleased about being “cruelly reduced to being a supporting player” during Keene’s two-week stay.  Others are concerned that the stage star plans to take over their company and bring in her own New York City troupe of actors.  Still, no one can dispute that having an actress of Keene’s renown will be good for business.

Vebena is married to the very “theatrical” (i.e. gay as a goose) Gavin De Chamblay (Michael Tatlock) who has his eye on W.J. Ferguson (James Jaeger), the comely younger backstage worker and understudy. (“I’ll coach you privately on Sunday,” Gavin offers W.J. entirely with ulterior motive. “I shall keep you there late and be a strict taskmaster,” he promises his protegé.)  Maude Bentley (Rita Hull) is an elderly company member whose husband and she once “played in log cabins with handmade candles stuck into large potatoes for lights.” Harry Hawke (Robert Youngs) is a dashing young leading man with alcohol on his breath and the guts to tell Laura Keene that she’s “a great, big, shiny, sugar-glazed ham” to her face.  Clementine Smith (Tracy Ahern) is a booze-swilling former child star whose “reflection in the gin bottle tells me my ingénue days are fast coming to an end.” Accompanying Laura is her devoted servant Madame Wu-Chan (Carla Valentine), whose name (and dialog like “See Tow Chee Chee Poo Ma Tow”) would seem to indicate someone born in China were it not for her darker-than-average skin tone.  One might assume this to be an example of alternative casting were it not for Clementine’s matter-of-fact “You’re a Negro lady, aren’t you?” Yes, even we were fooled there for a while, so it’s no wonder that everyone at Ford’s Theatre assumes that the escaped slave is an honest-to-goodness “Oriental.”

As Our Leading Lady begins, Laura Keene is rehearsing Act One, Scene One, “once again, please, from the tippy top.”  Harry and Gavin have only just said their first lines when Laura interrupts them, complaining, “The two of you have managed within seconds to completely eviscerate this play. As an actress-manager and visiting star, I shall not lower my standards to fit those of a provincial stock company!” Clearly with Keene around, the road to tonight’s performance will be a rocky one for the Ford’s Theatre company of actors, though at least President Lincoln is coming to brighten their spirits.

Not that Laura Keene is without a heart. Her previous performances of Our American Cousin have inspired “cripples” to send her “countless letters.”  “Yes, CRIPPLES, who trudge torturously into the theater on CANES,” she declares with a combination of pride and false humility. She’s compassionate to her costars as well, telling Verbena that “there is nothing wrong with being a supporting character woman. One’s value in a repertory company is only increased by a thickening waist and softened jaw line.” The ungrateful Verbena has the nerve to declare that “everyone knows (Laura Keene) was spawned only several inches higher than the gutter.”

Lines like the above give some idea of the particular brand of comic genius that is Charles Busch.  Famed for his theatrical movie spoofs in which he transforms himself into the glamorous leading lady (Shanghai Moon, Die, Mommie Die!, Psycho Beach Party, Red Scare On Sunset, etc.), Busch here allows an actor of the biologically female persuasion to portray real-life stage star Laura Keene.  Kate Mulgrew originated the role in New York to considerable praise, and Doyle is sure to garner equally fine notices for her performance in the West Coast premiere, directed with considerable panache by Brady Schwind.

Doyle, looking gorgeous in her period brunette wig and hoop skirts, captures all the elegance and hauteur of a legendary stage star, and has the razor-sharp comic timing to milk the most out of every one of Busch’s laugh lines.   Every bit her equal is Valentine as Madame Wu-Chan, throwing political correctness to the wind with her pseudo-Chinese-accented speech and deliberately clichéd “Oriental” subservience. Valentine’s subtle transformation from Asian to authentic African-American is particularly well-played.  The two actresses mesh perfectly, whether playing scenes for laughs or, in a sudden switch to the dramatic following the assassination, discovering more about each other in half an hour than they had in all their years together.

The supporting cast deliver gems of just-over-the-top-enough performances, from Youngs’ amusing take on the stalwart “leading man,” to Taylor’s feisty faded Southern belle, to Hull’s comically aging character actress. Ahern is a hoot as the perennially tipsy ex-child actress and Michael Prohaska does solid work as Major Hopwood, who investigates the troupe following the assassination.  Stealing every scene they’re in are Tatlock (swishing and flouncing with the best and gayest of them all) and Jaeger (all sweet innocence as Gavin’s apparently willing pupil).

The tonal shift in the first half of the second act bothered some New York critics.  Though one does suddenly feel that one is watching a different play, the scenes between Keene and Wu-Chan (especially as brought to life by Doyle and Valentine) are so well-played, and somehow still connected to the broader characters they’ve painted in the first act, that I didn’t particularly mind the change of mood.  In any case, soon enough, the other actors are back on stage and things return to their previous brand of Busch hilarity.

The Neighborhood Playhouse’s venue (Palos Verdes Estates’ The Neighborhood Church) proves as perfect a setting for Our Leading Lady as it did for Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Scenic designer Vali Tirsoaga has transformed the 1927 Mediterranean-style church into an 19th Century theater, surrounding the stage with precisely the assortment of props and scenery that Ford’s Theatre would have accumulated.  Lighting by Ric Zimmerman and John Stirling’s sound design are both first-rate. Jane Greenwood’s original New York designs, with additional costume design by Diana Mann, are elegant and pitch-perfect for the period.  Michael Aldapa gets an “A” for his wigs as well.

In Our Leading Lady, Charles Busch has created one of his most memorable leading ladies.  He’s also given us a colorful glimpse of theater life back in the mid-1800s, and even taught a bit of a history lesson.  The end result is a thoroughly delightful and unexpected new play being given a sparkling West Coast Premiere well worth a drive to beautiful Palos Verdes Estates. (And the ocean view from just outside the theater is included in the price of admission.)

Neighborhood Playhouse, 415 Paseo Del Mar, Palos Verdes Estates. Through March 8. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00  Reservations:

--Steven Stanley
February 22, 2009


Autumn's Mom said...

Well that was quite a review! You definitely are a hoot, my dear. I loved that! Have a great weekend sweetie.

Cherry said...

A hoot indeed!
I like that review much more.

Cherry said...

Seriously...I just read it all again and it really makes me want to make the drive down. Besides of course the possibility to say 'HEY there' to you again.
I'll have to check with the hubby's schedule but at the moment I think mine is free.

Who else wants to drive down?

Starshine said...

Oh, Cherry, you are making me giddy! That would be so much fun if it works out!