17 August 2015

'Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies'

My second trip to the 59E59 Theaters last month was for Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissiesone of the entries in East to Edinburgh, an annual series of plays from North American companies before they make the journey to the largest cultural festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.  The 2015 edition of East to Edinburgh ran from 7 to 25 July in Theaters B and C.  (For a brief background on the 59E59 Theaters, see my ROT report on Summer Shorts, posted on 12 August.)

Held each July, East to Edinburgh started in 2004 “as a way to help shows get on their feet before traveling to Scotland, simulating the same production constraints as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but in a clean, comfortable and nurturing space to fine-tune their productions.”  As at Edinburgh, the programming is not curated and the technical productions are kept minimal.  The 2015 festival featured 17 productions from around New York and across the U.S. 

Bette Davis, written and performed by Jessica Sherr and directed by Antony Raymond, ran at 59E59 on 8-10, 15-16, and 21 July (it played in both 59E59 houses) before moving first to Rochester, New York, for a short run and then to Edinburgh in August; in October, Bette Davis is booked in Hopewell, Virginia.  Sherr’s one-woman performance piece began life in 2010 as part of a 30-minute show called The Redheads, which she had also authored.  Sherr rewrote the piece and Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies débuted in 2011 at the New York International Fringe Festival.  (The title, for those who don’t recognize it, is a parody of a line attributed to Bette Davis, “Old age ain’t for sissies,” which she’s quoted as saying in a number of interviews in her later life.  The wording, of course, may vary and many other luminaries have used the line over the years as well.)  Bette Davis went on to several short runs in cabarets and small theaters, mostly Off-Off-Broadway, in New York City in 2011-2013, including 59E59’s Off-Broadway East to Edinburgh program in July 2013 (and then again in 2014). 

Sherr’s playlet has played at the Edinburgh Fringe previously in 2013 and 2014, followed in both instances by limited runs at St. James’s Theatre in London.  In between trips to the U.K., Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies was seen at the Michael Chekhov Theatre Festival in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in September 2013 and at the IRT Theater in Greenwich Village in October 2014.  Though Sherr, a Southern Californian with a BA in English and Dramatic Arts from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has done other work as an actor—her most prominent is probably a featured role in the 2014 remake of Annie—her principal occupation seems to be touring Bette Davis.  Her program bio states that she’s “always had a love of the 1930’s and 40’s,” which led her to Bette Davis.  Given her preoccupation with her one-act personification, you might even call it an obsession.

Diana and I attended the Tuesday, 21 July, performance of the 80-minute, one-act Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies at 8:30 p.m. in Theater C, 59E59’s 50- to 70-seat black box, variable-seating space.  The performance had general admission (no reserved seats), so the box-office staff recommended arriving early even though theatergoers weren’t admitted to the house (or even the third floor) until quarter or even twenty past the hour.  (59E59 publicity admonishes that “all shows begin promptly at their advertised time,” which turned out to be relatively accurate.)

The play’s set on 29 February 1940, the night the 1939 Academy Awards are being handed out.  Thirty-one‑year‑old Bette Davis has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Dark Victory and Vivien Leigh has been tapped for Scarlet O’Hara in the blockbuster hit, Gone With the Wind.  The Los Angeles Times, however, released the winners’ names before the actual ceremony—and Leigh had won the Oscar.  Rather than sit at the banquet in the Coconut Grove at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, Davis decided to go home so her Hollywood friends and rivals wouldn’t see her obvious disappointment.  (Davis had won the year before for her performance in Jezebel and in 1935 for Dangerous.)  Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies unfolds in Davis’s boudoir where she makes and takes phone calls, recalls memories of her Hollywood (some of which haven’t actually happened yet) as well as her pre-movie life with her mother, “Ruthie,” and on Broadway, and talks to us (whoever we are sitting in her home).

Overall, Bette Davis is unimpressive.  I’m not a fan of so-called monodramas—there have been exceptions: Clarence Darrow (1974) with Henry Fonda and Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979) with Pat Carroll—but this one was less than engaging.  It zipped around Davis’s life and films with little rationale, ultimately revealing nothing but a few factoids of mere curiosity value (unless you have a thing for Bette Davis trivia).  For instance, the play’s descriptive blurb in the theater’s publicity makes a strong point that Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies explores the stars’ “battle to win freedom from the grip and control of the Hollywood studio moguls,” an allusion to the 1937 lawsuit she brought against Warner Bros. studios to try to get out of a contract she thought was deliberately holding her back.  But this event is just one of many mentioned in passing and is not a theme of the performance.  (There really isn’t one, so far as I could see.  Except maybe to show that Davis was a strong woman—but, a), we know that by now, and, b), there’s an awful lot of that on our stages and screens these days.  Not really news.)

The play unravels haphazardly in time; though ostensibly set on Oscar night in 1940, it jumps back to her arrival in Hollywood and forward even to the ’50s.  (The closing line is the famous quotation Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” from All About Eve, which was released in 1950.  I guess it’s supposed to be a comment on Davis’s decision to go back to the Ambassador Hotel, but I really think it was just an excuse for Sherr to get to speak Margo Channing’s legendary line.)  Sometimes it’s just Davis relating her memories to us, but at other times Sherr enacts moments from Davis’s past—one side of them, of course, since Sherr is alone on stage—as if we’re seeing the memories themselves.  Unless you know Davis’s biography or pick up on some reference in the lines, it’s sometimes hard to tell when in time the play is.

The actress-writer, Jessica Sherr, is not an impressive performer.  As long as she’s been doing this piece and as often as she’s spoken these lines, she still bobbled a few at the performance I saw, for example—the last of six.  (She also has a very strange mouth, which in the small proscenium house was very distracting.)  She doesn’t impersonate Davis, which is fine, I suppose, except that the movie star had such a distinctive and famous style it’s hard to picture her without it; when Sherr first came out on stage, my immediate reaction was that she looks more like a skinny Mae West than Davis.  (Sherr claims she was inspired to create this piece—in all its several incarnations over the past half decade—because she has “Bette Davis eyes.”  Personally, I didn’t see it.)  

There wasn’t much press coverage of the last New York outing of Bette Davis, though there’s some around from previous stagings that I’ve found.  Writing on Stage Buddy, K Krombie (apparently the guy—there’s a photo on the site—doesn’t use a period, like the actor A Martinez) described the one-act play as “a back and forth time construct “ that “works best during those moments in which the arch of an eyebrow or the inflection on a particular word transform Sherr into the Bette Davis so many are familiar with.”  “Sherr has made a wise decision in surrendering to high drama,” Krombie asserted.  “Bette Davis is not a woman who should ever be played down.”  Noting that “Davis acting strengths peaked with good, fast dialogue and her loaded trademark glances,” our Stage Buddy went on to determine, “Sherr uses the same technique, posturing, gliding, costume changing and cutting down to size those who dare to challenge her with ineptitude, discrimination or any kind of shortcoming.”  Krombie also acknowledged that Sherr’s “writing and characterization are well researched and plausibly over the top.”  Of Sherr’s 2013 East to Edinburgh appearance (directed then by Janice Orlandi), David Roberts wrote on Theatre Reviews Limited, “Jessica Sherr has those Bette Davis eyes along with remarkable Davis lookalike hair and lips.”  She uses these attributes, Roberts declared, “to create a winning retrospective of Bette Davis’ personal life and career.”  The TRL blogger further reported, “Sherr gives performances that are both comedic and dramatic,” delivering a portrait that Roberts felt “overall . . . is authentic and gracious” despite occasions when “the actor’s delivery loses the bite of the Yankee Davis.” 

Of the 2011 performance at the New York Fringe Festival, Erik Haagensen wrote in Back Stage, the theater trade weekly, that Bette Davis is “naïve” and “not remotely persuasive.”  Haagensen asked the same question about which I wondered: “To whom is the character talking?”  Noting that Sherr doesn’t seem to have answered it, the Back Stage reviewer posited that this “results in awkwardly unmotivated hopscotching through "Bette's memories.”  In addition, he noted, as I have, “Sherr neither looks nor sounds like the legendary star, despite an erratic attempt at a self-consciously cultured New England accent.”  (Davis, who referred to herself as “a Yankee,” was from Maine.)  The Back Stager went even further than I did by pointing out that “this Davis is suffused with self-pity, an emotion the flinty, iconoclastic, and ferociously intelligent original would have despised.”

I can’t agree with the praise leveled on Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies by Krombie and Roberts above, but Haagensen seems to have come down right on my own position.  I don’t recommend Bette Davis at all, even if it returns in some new incarnation.  (I saw a play in 2013 at the Atlantic Theater Company called The Lying Lesson, about Davis in her later years, on which I was fairly cool—but it has this one-hander beat by a mile; see my report on 6 April 2013.  Coincidentally, it was by Craig Lucas, the book-writer for An American in Paris, on which I reported on 2 August.)

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