Friday, June 26, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Ann, the Fast-Taking Texas Broad" on Benjamin Ensley Klein's play Ann

ann, the fast-talking texas broad
by Douglas Messerli

Benjamin Endsley Klein (with contributions by Holland Taylor, writer and stage director), David S. Wolfson (director) Ann / 2020 [TV PBS "Great Performances" series]

Were it not for the topnotch acting of Holland Taylor—dressed in a handsome Chanel white suit, a bowl-like wig of gray curled hair planted upon her head, with a continual application of bright red lipstick—Ann, the one-woman play written and directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein (augmented by stories told to Taylor by friends of the woman she portrays, Texas Governor Ann Richards) might have several times lost its energy as this work moves from Richards supposedly giving a Commencement speech to graduating college students, to a discussion of her life as a child, her marriage and its failure, her attempt to be a perfect wife and growing alcoholism, and her first political role as a local commissioner of Travis, Texas—all before we’re made privy to what a full day might have been like during her tenure as Governor of Texas. Fortunately Taylor doesn’t let the action and the play’s one-liners lose momentum for one moment, except perhaps for the very last scene where she preaches the importance of not perceiving government as an issue of “them” and “us,” insisting that, each in our own ways, all should become involved with the government.

      Richards, if you are too young to remember, first came to national attention at the 1988 Democratic Convention, beginning with the comment that she is glad to be speaking there on that evening because “after listening all these years to George Bush, I figured you needed to hear what a real Texas accent sounds like.” “Twelve years ago Barbara Jordon, another Texas woman,” Richards continued, “also gave the keynote address to this convention, and I figure two women in 160 years is about par for the course. But if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.”

       Howard and I were there through a live-television broadcast which almost immediately made every Democrat in the country fall in love with her.
       Playing this larger-than-life figure with uncanny preciseness—as The New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood put it, “If you can spy even a crack of daylight between actor and character in this performance, you’ve got better eyes than I do.”—hardly missing a beat between her clear adoration of her towering (6 some feet) father—who took her on regular fishing trips as well as to the local town storefronts, where, as one of the “good ‘ole boys,” he lovingly allowed to enter his world, and her impossible to please mother, who after attending one of Richards’ most famous speeches, gushed her pleasure not over her daughter’s words, but the fact that she had been able to meet the local weatherman.
       Ann was clearly blessed, so she felt, by her marriage to the noted Civil Rights lawyer, Dave Richards, quickly attempting to become the more-than-perfect-wife, celebrating and hosting his many friends with large family dinners, as well as helping with his several law cases. Her reward for all this activity, as she recounts, was a few vodka martinis at the end of each of her long days.
       By the time her friends got around to telling her that after a few martinis she was a different woman, encouraging her to join AA, her marriage was also beginning to fall apart. As she humorously summarizes her experience: “I musta drunk eleven hundred thousand martinis by the time I landed in A.A. — and by then, I was this big ol’ county commissioner! So I like to think I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past. And nowadays, hell, you can’t hardly even get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”

     When she, despite these issues, was elected as Governor, we are treated to a set imitating her office in the State Capitol where, for nearly an hour of the play, she barks orders to her off-stage secretary and speaks on her phone to a wide range of figures, including Bill Clinton, to whom she attempts to pitch a successful program, started in Texas, for Federal implementation; blows up at her financial advisor who, afraid of even visiting her office, must tell her that he has improperly vetted a supporter who has flown her on his airplane to a Texas event—meaning she will have pay the $8,700 some bill out of pocket (as she bemoans, that’s more than I get paid for two months); cajoles her children to attend a planned family dinner, assigning them each a ham, pies, and a turkey (when that youngest son seems leery of even attending since at the last such event, his older brother has assigned him the near-impossible, to act out Rob Lowe’s sexually orgy for a game of charades) which ends her belting out “All right, I’ll bake the turkey!”; insistently berating a female aide for never being in her office; and ordering up cowboy boots for her entire staff and other friends as gifts of appreciation—all the while signing requested autographs, planning for that evening’s speech she is to deliver in El Paso, while a quick return so that she might meet with her lawyer after she is determined to grant a murderer on death row a stay.

      After all of that, is it any wonder that she nearly forgets to return her heels to her feet, quipping: “You know, I’m getting more and more forgetful. Soon I will be able to hide my own Easter eggs.”

       When she is defeated for a second term by George W. Bush—primarily over the issue of whether or not Texans can carry concealed arms (at another time, not presented in the play, Richards berated the younger Bush as “having been born with a silver foot in his mouth.”)  
       Without any money to speak of, and no obvious source of future income, she is fearful that she will end up in a trailer in her daughter’s driveway. But suddenly, she brightens, just as I was about to buy a bait and tackle shop, people began to invite me to lecture, and a large group of Democratic politics ask her to join them in New York, for they had causes while I had all the addresses.
       Even with a less-than-perfect ending, this play is a delight throughout, as Taylor takes her wise-talking hero on a walk through the past she so much deserves.
        Richards died of cancer in 2006, but through her still many living friends and acquaintances, her larger than life persona, the fast-talking political diva came alive at the Vivien Beaumont Theatre in New York and in the numerous theaters in other cities throughout the country where Ann was performed. Even as a reviewer, I could not get tickets when it ran at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2020).

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Dancing with a Dead Man" (on O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten"

dancing with a dead man

by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill (author), José Quintero and Gordon Rigsby (directors) A Moon for the Misbegotten  1973 [TV]

As some critics, over the years, have commented, Eugene O’Neill’s last play, a kind of sequel to the then (A Moon for the Misbegotten premiered in 1947) unproduced Long Day’s Journey into Night, is a fragile work that needs a near-perfect cast to bring it to life, reiterated, almost, by the various lengths of the play’s runs.
     The original Broadway production, directed by Carmen Capalbo, despite some first-rate actors in Franchot Tone and Wendy Hiller, lasted only 68 performances, a flop by any definition. Its failure also meant the playwright’s break with the Theatre Guild, who had previously produced a great many of his works.
     The Off-Broadway revival of 1968 by the Circle in the Square Theatre, directed by Theodore Mann and starring Salome Jens as Josie, ran for less than a week.
      The second Broadway revival of this play at the Cort Theatre, directed by David Leveaux, in 1984. Kate Nelligan, as Jocie, was nominated for a Tony, but it ran only for 40 performances, even less that the original production.
      The third revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan in 2000 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with Cherry Jones as Jocie, lasted a bit longer at 120 performances. Perhaps by that time audiences had grown somewhat more accustomed to O’Neill’s longish monologues, the tough-and-rough language of Jocie and her father, and the long pauses in the rhythm of the play.
     In 2007 there was yet a 4th revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre—starring the wonderful Eve Best as Jocie—which lasted for 2 ½ months, after a 112-performance run at London’s Old Vic.
     As dreary as these figures are, however, there was one extremely important exception, revealing the effectiveness of this play.
     In 1973, José Quintero directed three actors with long careers and life-long devotion to O’Neill works: Colleen Dewhust, Jason Robards, Jr.,—who later performed the same character, at a younger age, in the 1962 film version directed by Sidney Lumet.
     For the acting in this production both Dewhurst and Ed Flanders as her father, won Tony awards, as the play when on to run for 314 performances (a solid run for a serious Broadway drama), and is pretty much recognized now by most critics as the definitive production.

    As O’Neill scholar Travis Bogard wrote: “Doomed to failure without superb acting…no subsequent production ever recreated the magic of those 314 performances.”
     That version, after its Broadway run, went on to be performed at Washington D.C.’s The Kennedy Center, where, amazingly, Howard and I saw it also in 1973.
     Yet, I remember little of it, only perceiving it fully in the ABC taping of the same production, which I saw yesterday. The film received 5 Emmy nominations, with Ed Sanders winning the award for Supporting Actor.
     O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in terms of plot, is hardly complex. The work begins with with the farmer Hogan’s (Flanders) third son, Mike, escaping the hard work and abuse from his father he has had to endure for most of his life to live with his two other brothers. His sister Jocie, abets that escape, even producing the boy with a few dollars she has stolen from her father’s money box.
     She remains in good stead with the now furious father through her bluster, her quick-witted tongue, and a large stick she holds onto so that her father can feel justified for his inability to beat her for her participation in the betrayal.
     Their hardscrabble farm is owned by Jamie, now spoken of as Jim and Jimmy, whose father, the noted actor James Tyrone, Sr. one day inexplicably purchased it. The younger James is a regular visitor to the farm, loving to chat with her father, and secretly in love with Jocie, who also has the reputation of being the nearby town’s whore, a moniker she seems herself to encourage.
     Yet James realizes the lie of that boast, perceiving her (correctly) still as a virgin, and finding her tall, somewhat imposing stature (She describes herself “a cow of a woman”) as a thing of beauty.

      If in the early scenes there is a great deal of coming and going, James paying them a visit to announce that their wealthy, pompous neighbor Steadman Harder will soon be paying them a visit to protest the fact that Hogan’s pigs occasionally escape their pen and slip into Harder’s pristine pond.
      But the major events occur in the second act in a series of non-events surrounding the central two figures. We first glimpse Jocie, attired in her best dress, including socks and shoes—throughout most of the play this Amazon is barefooted—awaiting the would-be lover who is now several hours late.
     Furious, she pulls off her stockings and shoes, as her father finally returns from the same nearby bar where he has gone with James.
     Under the cover of drunkenness, he angrily complains to his daughter that they can no longer trust James, since at the bar their landlord has agreed to the now outrageous price for their worthless farm for $10,000, enough surely that Jim might return to New York and his “Broadway tarts.”
     Still furious for being stood up, and now hearing what she believes as the truth, Jocie plots revenge. If her father will bring James to her, she will drink with him (she is a near teetotaler), getting him drunk before carrying him in her bed, while her father and others he brings with him at daybreak will attest to sexual misconduct, allowing the Hogans to get back the $10,000 which they know he will pay out of guilt.
     Hogan goes off, but James, hours late, finally does finally show up, while Jocie attempts to get him soused. Knowing her as well as he does (he has long perceived the lie of her sexual indiscretions), he refuses to allow her to drink.
     And as they two talk in the moonlight, she gradually uncovers the truth, that the offer from Harder was verbally accepted only so that the next day he can again refuse him, bedeviling the vile, rich neighbor.
     Recognizing his honesty, Jocie nearly swoons over a couple of kisses between the two of them and his frenzied head buried on her lap, as he alternates between coherent banter and almost shrill drunken memories that continue to haunt him.
     Allowing herself to be taken in love, she brings him into her bed, where he quickly, again in his drunken state of mind, attempts to rape her, she running from the room declaring that she is not a “whore.”
     He apologizes but also suggests it may be good that she has seen him like that, his real self who would totally destroy her if they become more romantically entwined.

     Finally, he drunkenly mumbles out the terrible story of how, upon his mother’s death and, with her coffin in baggage, during his voyage to her final burial he called each night for a $56 dollar whore with whom he had sex. He was so drunk by the time they reached their destination that he missed his mother’s final funeral.
     Jocie is shocked, but ultimately forgives him, and realizes that he has told her something he had told no other. She allows him to rest on her lap for the rest of night, only awakening him with the sunrise.
     The result is obvious since James is off to New York by the end of the week, probate on the family home finally coming to an end.
      Not only has Jocie realized the truths of his private confession, but accepts it as an unconditional offering of love, while still perceiving that the man whom she loves are actually, like his entire family except Edmond (O’Neill) who is extremely ill, ghosts.
      What most fascinates me about this dance with a dead man is Jocie’s—and to a certain extent James’— constant effort to pull and push away from one another while at the very same moment they entice each other back into embrace. It is truly a kind of dance with death punctuated with fearful hope and utter disgust. By the exhausting end of this “dance,” Jocie can hardly walk, so tied up in knots are her legs for holding and protecting him all night.
      But by the daylight, when her father returns, claiming it was all scheme, not for the money, but to bring the two of them together, his daughter has grown strong knowing that once in her life she did possess love, even if it was delivered from the dead of the Tyrone family. She threatens to finally leave her father, but by the end of the play remains with him.
      And it is, ultimately, this alternating sense of love and rejection which makes O’Neill’s work so very brilliant—even if it takes only great actors to achieve it on stage.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance