VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
at Avenue Theater
ACT OF TRANSLATION
at Edgewater Theatre Center
While I wouldn't want all theater to be verbatim spoofs of old movies or television programs, there's no denying that done right--and Id/Ego Productions' Valley of the Dolls is--such parodies can be hilarious strolls down memory lane, making fun of once-hip trends and life-styles.
About 25 years ago the play's director, Michael Hildebrand, fell in love with the movie, he said, "fascinated with its badness." Based on Jacqueline Susann's novel, Valley of the Dolls is a potpourri of Hollywood cliches, a titillating 60s soap opera about a culture of drugs and free love gone bad. Three women become friends in New York's cutthroat show-business world, their lives turn wildly successful, and they wind up drowning in California decadence. The story begins with Anne Welles: suspecting she's frigid, she leaves her boyfriend and small hometown for the Big Apple. Unexpectedly excited by the dashing talent agent Lyon Burke, who's sworn off marriage, she begins an ill-fated affair with him. Meanwhile, Anne encourages the peppy young singer Neely O'Hare; once sweet, she's later transformed by success and drugs--"dolls"--into an ugly prima donna. Jennifer North completes the trio as the no-brains beauty with a heart of gold; she marries Tony, a Tom Jones-type sex symbol with a plummeting career and a crippling disease. The ultimate in tacky comes when the big-bosomed Jennifer discovers she has breast cancer.
In Cynthia Desmond's stage version, an invented narration by "Jacqueline Susann" (performed by Lea Tolub) plays up the writer's maudlin sentimentality and dubious talent. Susann introduces her dismal tale by explaining, "You have to go to the top of the mountain to get to the valley of the dolls . . . and it's a really, really tall mountain." Similarly, she describes the house where Anne grew up as a "really, really old house" and the drooping figure of aging film star Helen Lawson as "gone . . . really, really gone." Susann's running commentary is sometimes disruptive, but the lame, authentic film dialogue and the sight gags--such as Timothy Hayden's drag performance as Helen--make this a classic spoof.
Making fun of the film's artificial acting, Hildebrand elicits broad, self-conscious posing from his players. Lovers embrace only to stop and look at the audience, displaying deliriously happy smiles or pensive gazes. The last scene in the play mocks what was no doubt meant to be a final stirring shot in the film, when Anne walks in the woods, leaving behind everything she once thought she wanted. Onstage, of course, she looks ridiculous brushing a branch on the floor with such profundity.
Desmond is a scream as the morbidly stoic Anne Welles, the epitome of 60s sophistication in "barely pink" lipstick, perfectly deadpan as the fiercely strong friend to Jennifer and Neely who handles every problem with fortitude and increasingly deep tones of voice. Appropriately, when Anne finally breaks down, she does it big. Forever etched in my mind is the image of Desmond tumbling on a blanket, a slide projection of a beach behind her, an empty bottle of vodka in her hand.
Equally memorable is Kate McClanaghan as the obnoxiously perky Neely pantomiming a Petulia Clark-esque song from the movie sound track. Lampooning 60s variety shows, McClanaghan's choreography consists of moving her hips in a figure eight and swinging her arms to the music, grinning as if she were doing something truly difficult and endearing. McClanaghan gives the other end of Neely's spectrum--her life as a crazed drug addict--a broad and hilarious performance, crawling across the floor for a fix and screaming at anyone who gets in her way.
All the cast are excellent: Thomas Colby as the unctuous Tony; Donna Vittorio as his Phyllis Diller-look-alike sister; Jane McNeil as the wide-eyed, big-chested Jennifer; Thom Van Ermen as Lyon Burke, suave in romance-novel proportions; and Jeremy Harris as several sleazy show-biz opportunists. But half of what makes each performance is Myra Diaz's costume. Valley of the Dolls offers a feast of vintage hip huggers, fringed tops over bare midriffs, bell-bottoms, Jackie O suits, multicolored cloaks, and fake leopard fur.
Fred Kowalski and Joseph Murphy provide the perfect matching 60s set; lime green, pale orange, lavender, and pink blobs of paint decorate the walls. And thank goodness Hildebrand had the presence of mind to buy the Valley of the Dolls sound track all those years ago, so his stage version is filled with overorchestrated background music and syrupy songs telling us to make love, not war. Then as now, Valley of the Dolls is pure 60s schlock--laughable in every way.
Poles apart from the harmless fluff of Id/Ego's campy send-up is Act of Translation, a soul-baring one-woman show written and performed by Jennifer Keller. "As a feminist artist," she tells us, "I'm told not to hit people over the head." Fellow artists have advised her to approach her theories about growing up female with humor and subtlety. But Keller believes some people are beyond nuance. So she breaks the rules of artistic etiquette and pulls a baseball bat from behind her back to slam us with a list of complaints. In the diatribe that follows she unleashes her frustration without apology, but she offers humor too, which eases the tension in this politically pointed monologue. With a stand-up comedian's gift for observation and absurd rhetorical questions Keller asks, "If I've come such a long way, why do they still call me 'baby'?" And "If a man walks down the street in a red plaid polyester suit and I kill him, can I tell the judge, 'He was asking for it'?"
Keller's 50 minutes of commentary is not all laughs, however. She seems to ask again and again, "Why aren't I allowed to be angry?" Well, anger isn't pretty or comfortable to watch, but with Keller at least it's honest. She's angry, for instance, that the male heroes of her adolescence--Bruno Bettelheim, Joe Louis, and Jesse Jackson--turned out to have feet of clay. She's confused that a man she was involved with, who "wouldn't hurt a fly," had no problem physically and verbally abusing her for half a year. She's furious that when she told her friends, they didn't believe her or thought it was her fault.
For Keller the political is intimately intertwined with the personal, and so she describes her growth as a feminist in terms of sometimes funny, sometimes painful childhood and early-adult memories. When she moves to the dark half of the large, empty stage to talk, somewhat extemporaneously, about her own victimization, performance turns into therapy session. Intensely personal and disturbing, her "confession" seems genuine--good for Keller's soul and an effective way to show a voyeuristic audience that sometimes indignation, so often perceived as unattractive, is justified.