by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - January 29, 2007) James Kirkwood's Legends at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles, (and currently on a national tour) concerns two long-in-the-tooth actresses (originally Mary Martin and Carol Channing -- in this revival, Joan Collins and Linda Evans) who are desperate to salvage their careers from the threat of obscurity. Despite the fact they have been bitter enemies for many years, they are lured into a "package" assembled by a zealous young producer who dangles the prospect of a show starring Paul Newman. This project, they believe, may rekindle their popularity and give their drooping careers a new fillip. Despite protestations that they are "above" participating in a sleazy off-Broadway play with a hopeful eye towards Broadway-transfer, they struggle to effect a truce which will enable them to bring the new project to fruition and thereby restore their marketability.
As a play, Legends is "a thing of shreds and patches." It tries desperately to find ways of varying the antagonism between its two fading stars, generating thumping great implausibilities along the way. Sylvia Glen (Collins) and Leatrice Monsée (Evans) are essentially two cardboard figures and the playwright is continually snipping at them with a playful pair of scissors. By the time we are into the turgidities of the second act, the mise en scène lies littered all over the stage but, Collins and Evans, oblivious to the fact that we have been glutted by broad contrivances, are still trading punches, although it is the audience that is receiving the lion's share of the punishment.
And yet, one has to admit that there is a certain fascination to the evening -- one that is rooted in the way fact interacts with fiction.
The feuding "prima donna motif" has already been effectively realized between fading divas such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis both in real life and in films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" as well as the stormy relationship Davis is supposed to have had with Miriam Hopkins in the 1940s. The lethal cattiness of characters who allegedly loathe each other and take every opportunity to demolish one another with poisonous witticisms, was the mainstay of l8th century Restoration Comedy, and fanged playwrights such as Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Etherege used it to good purpose. Somehow, in our own age, when trumped-up celebrities like Donald Trump trash humorless TV comediennes like Rosie O'Donnell, we see how short a distance we have traveled since the Age of Enlightenment. But as a theatrical device, despite its blisters and bunions, the device still has "legs."
What fascinates us in Legends is our own knowledge of Joan Collins's and Linda Evans's past duels on Dynasty and the things that, over the years, we have gleaned about their private lives. Collins is a tough-as-nails survivor whose aura consists of being a venomous bitch who gives no quarter in any feud; Evans was the vulnerable, long-suffering victim of Collins's brutal ploys. The legacy of Dynasty, added to the fact that both actresses are in fact in the twilight of their careers, confers a certain dimensionality to everything they say and do. Through the cracked prism of Kirkwood's machine-made comedy, we are focusing on the actresses rather than their characters, mentally rehashing tidbits of their marriages, divorces, and moral slippages. We root for Collins, not because she has the most wounding comic barbs (which she has) but because we recognize the fact that, in the ravages that Show Business mercilessly inflicts, she is a true survivor. Evans hasn't the ability to hammer out punch lines as does Collins, but her attractiveness is in good nick and we honor her for lampooning it; that is, pretending that she is decaying, when in fact she is in pretty good shape. Most of the subconscious considerations in the minds of the audience have to do with things far removed from the données of the play; they mingle memories of Dynasty with articles we have read about both stars in tabloids such as People Magazine and the National Enquirer. All of this adds immeasurably to what is taking place on stage but, at the same time, actuality drains the blood out of the comedic fictions. Kirkwood has written a play, but we are transported by media memories that are far more beguiling than anything any playwright can cobble together.
I don't meant to foist Legends as some kind of outré example of Brecht's Theory of Alienation, but there is no question that the well-known facts about the private lives of the performers make it impossible to suspend our disbelief and treat them merely as fictive creations. And it is this dissociation of sensibility on our part that makes the play both fascinating and transparent.
In more conventional review terms, one has to record that Joe Farrell, the hungry producer desperately trying to assemble a package of a play with the two divas in association with Paul Newman (a device that is perhaps the most dated aspect of a play written more than twenty years ago) unquestionably delivers the most appealing comic performance of the evening. Farrell's maniacal, spasmodic, hyperventilating lunacy confirms to the audience that nothing must be taken seriously, least of all the plot-line, or the play's pretensions to art.
Running a close second to Farrell is Will Holman's outrageous Chippendale strip-tease that, were this a musical comedy, would undoubtedly stop the show. One feels, within the Kirkwood context, his appearance is something of a plum offered to the gay audience, who has clearly deified Collins and Evans as showbiz goddesses. Holman is a lithe, bronzed, muscle-rippling fellow and when his dance gets into the buff, it contributes a certain eroticism to the occasion that Collins and Evans, despite their joint appeal, lack.
It would be supercilious and false to suggest that a good time was not had by all, because it definitely was; but what I took away from the experience had more to do with the subtext I have tried to describe than the labored one-liners that seethe within the heart of Kirkwood's comedy.
Sometimes the show that people are not aware they are putting on is better than the one they intend. This revival of Legends is a captivating case in point.
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