Friday, July 26, 2013

62. Review of JEZEBEL AND ME (July 25, 2013)



Earlier this year the Atlantic Theater Company produced Craig Lucas’s THE LYING LESSON, which dramatized a situation in which the eccentric movie star Bette Davis decided to purchase a house in a small town in Maine. It was 1981, Davis was 73, and her career was on the wane. Carol Kane played Davis in a doomed attempt to capture the outsized star’s notable mannerisms of voice and gesture. This is what I wrote:

A good deal of time is occupied with Davis reciting Hollywood anecdotes, especially when she can push verbal pins into Joan Crawford, her filmic rival in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. Cinema buffs with a taste for the campier efforts of Davis and Crawford’s twilight years might enjoy these reminiscences, but the chances are they’d find them passé. Perhaps if Carol Kane’s portrayal of Davis the diva were more authentic, the piece might at least have had performative—if not dramaturgical—excitement, but, alas, all that Ms. Kane shares with the flamboyantly dramatic movie star are large eyes and short stature. Her voice, diction, gestures, and general behavior are entirely wrong, and if you’re at all familiar with the original, you’ll be unable throughout the otherwise monotonous proceedings to accept the performance on its own terms, since without at least a believable replica of the original, there’s nothing else to grab on to here.

Now, Elizabeth Fuller’s autobiographical two-hander, ME AND JEZEBEL, originally produced Off Broadway (15 performances at the Actors Theatre in 1994), has been revived at the Snapple Theatre Center; those Bette Davis eyes, made even more prominent by the huge black-rimmed eyeglasses she wore in her later years, are on view in another unsuccessful stab at bringing the screen diva back to life.  Much of what I wrote above can be applied to this endeavor, a dramatization by Ms. Fuller of her own best-selling book (ME AND JEZEBEL: WHEN BETTE DAVIS CAME FOR DINNER . . . AND STAYED . . . AND STAYED . . . AND STAYED . . AND . . .) about a time in 1985 when the 77-year-old actress, needing a place to work on her memoirs during a New York hotel strike, stayed at Ms. Fuller’s home in Westport, Connecticut, saying it would only be for a day or two, but remaining for 32 days. Reportedly, the play has been performed over the past two decades in Prague, Slovakia, Munich, Edinburgh, Warsaw, Athens, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brazil.

            Bette Davis’s flamboyant persona has always attracted the attention of drag artists, so it is not surprising to note that, in ME AND JEZEBEL, she is performed by a man, Kelly Moore. In the current revival of THE SILVER CORD, at St. Clements, Mrs. Phelps, the leading character, is also being played by a man, a highly distracting casting choice for a role in a serious drama specifically written for a woman. In ME AND JEZEBEL, Davis’s role is written to exploit her noted tics and purported fondness for bitchy one-liners, the kind of things drag specialists love to play, although an actress, Louise DuArt, noted for her celebrity impressions, played the part in 1994. (In fact, she replaced a man, Randy Allen, who became ill and passed away.)  Mr. Moore—who creates a passable enough resemblance to Davis with makeup, wig, and costume—is far too feeble an actor to sustain more than the most shallow level of believability. His attempts to capture Davis’s distinctive accent, timing, and hand and body movements are unconvincing; his breathing is erratic, he is physically awkward, and he seems unable even to hold a cigarette correctly. It’s likely that the director, Marc S. Graham (who staged the 1994 original), is to blame, but, except for one or two instances, whenever Davis has to smoke, which—given her nicotine habit—is often, Mr. Moore merely flicks his lighter and fake-lights his cigarette, then fake-smokes it. (His costar, Ms. Fuller, does the same.) And when he pours himself a drink, he fake-pours non-existent alcohol from an empty bottle, and fake-drinks from an empty glass. This, of course, is the height of amateurism, and it pervades too much of the performance.

            Ms. Fuller plays herself. In the 1994 version, Ms. Fuller she did the same. I assume she’s performed the role many times since but I will refrain from commenting on her development as an actor.

           Her play, despite its being based on a true experience, seems designed to exploit all the familiar Davis-isms, including the same tired Crawford references peppered throughout THE LYING LESSON. Davis, like Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, is the demanding celebrity guest who needs constant attention and turns the host’s home life upside down. Ms. Fuller is a self-described Bette Davis idolator, so the opportunity to be the star’s hostess, even at the expense of tension with Ms. Fuller’s reluctant husband, is not to be missed. However, for all her sincerity, her character seems uncomfortably sycophantic. There are, of course, heartwarming moments, stemming partly from the efforts of Ms. Fuller (who claims psychic abilities) to channel her late grandmother, Old Ma, and Davis’s late mother, Ruthie; the friendship Davis forms with Fuller’s four-year-old son, Christopher; and a charming letter of gratitude the star writes when she finally leaves. There is no coda about any subsequent relationship between Davis, who died four years later, and Ms. Fuller, and one suspects there was none.

            The core event dramatized here will be of some interest to those who remember Bette Davis’s contributions to screen acting, and who share in the nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood. For serious theatre fans, however, they’d be better off revisiting Davis’s great performances on TCM. JEZEBEL would be a good place to start.