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Theatre in Review: The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign (Theater for the New City)

Joanna Hartstone. Photo: Tom Kitney

In real life, the girl who jumped off the Hollywood sign was Peg Entwistle, who enjoyed a busy few years on Broadway but struggled in the film industry, earning only one credit -- ninth-billed in a thriller starring Irene Dunne -- before failing to get her RKO contract renewed. Subject to depression and scarred by divorce -- she was, briefly, stepmother to the future television star Brian Keith -- she disappeared one night in September 1932. Her body was found on Mount Lee, in the Hollywood Hills, not far from the sign that, in those days, spelled out "Hollywoodland." Nearby lay her purse, in which was tucked a suicide note. Her strange, sad celebrity has stood the test of time; even today, her ghost is said to be spotted by hikers passing by the site of her death. Few of them claim to have previously heard of her.

At Theater for the New City, the girl we meet gingerly stepping across the "H" in the Hollywood sign -- "I didn't know there would be so many rungs on that ladder," she notes, huffing and puffing -- is Evie Edwards, a long-running showbiz hopeful and all-around hard-luck dame who, in 1949, is ready to follow Peg in leaping to her doom. "I know what I'm doing," she insists, adding that she even bought a new dress for the occasion. Well, sort of new; she adds, not without a touch of pride, that her all-black ensemble was previously owned by Theda Bara. A fan seemingly until the end, she gushes about Bara, noting that her name was an anagram for "Arab death" and mourning the loss of her cinematic output in a fire.

Such a tragic event is par for the course in Evie's universe, a place where the worst outcome is, usually, the most likely one. Following the death of her mother during the Depression, the very young Evie and her father -- a woodworker with a taste for boozing and gambling -- take shelter in a Hooverville. Passed around from one adult handler to another, Evie grows up shy and unsure of herself. When father and daughter finally move into an apartment, she finds a mother figure of sorts in their landlady. All too soon, however, she is uprooted again and taken to California, where her father, hired by Hughes Aircraft, works on the Spruce Goose, that white elephant of the air, which cost millions without ever going into production. It seems everything Evie and her dad pursue leads to a dead end.

While her father works on a plane that will never fly, Evie lands a job as a "messenger girl" at MGM. "My supervisor told me that I was very good at being unnoticeable, and that is what made me good at my job," she says -- not words that an aspiring actress wants to hear. But while she's busy being invisible, she misses nothing of the many dramas unfolding around her. Paid for her discretion, she is a silent witness to Judy Garland's nervous breakdown on the set of The Pirate. She also confides that Jean Harlow's death, from uremic poisoning, was caused by the weekly hair bleaches -- "ammonia, peroxide, Lux soap flakes, and Clorox" -- that gave her that distinctive platinum-blonde look. She adds, with considerable resentment, that, following, an elaborate funeral attended by every star in Hollywood, MGM rushed Harlow's final film, Saratoga, back into production, using body doubles to complete Harlow's scenes. "The irony is... if it weren't for her hair, Hollywood wouldn't have known Jean Harlow was alive," she adds.

Given her close-up view of this human toll, it's surprising that Evie still wants to be a star, but fame's siren song proves hard to resist, and so she makes the rounds, although the best she manages is an audition for a three-line role opposite Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. (Her re-creation of the part is one of the show's more amusing bits.) Pretty soon, desperation sets in, leading to fateful encounters with two real-life figures: Scotty Bowers, the male madam who ran his business out of a Hollywood filling station, and Jules C. Stein, the agent and founder of MCA who, arguably, quietly ruled over all of Hollywood for several decades. Following these, faced with no real prospects and the looming possibility of prostitution, she decides to repeat Peg's gaudy finale.

With its relentless focus on the underside of the dream factory, The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign often recalls the fiction of Nathanael West and Horace McCoy. Joanne Hartstone, who wrote and stars, brings a breathless, neurotic quality to Evie, her nice-girl demeanor -- she is pathetically eager to please -- undermined by the trouble she has seen. She warbles a few numbers -- her one moment of glory comes when she performs before an enthusiastic audience of soldiers and sailors at the Stage Door Canteen -- in an unsteady vibrato that underlines her fatal problem: In a town where new faces arrive daily by the trainload, she is neither sufficiently beautiful or talented, nor distinctive enough a personality, to stand out. The one way she can get the world's attention is by leaving it.

Like everything else in the play, her singing is informed by a dark intensity, which is both the distinguishing characteristic and most troubling flaw of The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign. Hartstone is unsparing in laying bare Evie's pathetic, dashed hopes; at times, her work is almost unbearably intense. At the same time, the story of the tragic, would-be starlet is an old, old one, and, after a while, one begins to wonder if there is any point in this exercise in masochism. (Hartstone's timing may be in her favor; this story of a powerless babe in the show business woods may resonate for some in these days of #metoo.) Given the play's title, there is very little suspense regarding its outcome, and one tires of hearing about the parade of abuses to which Evie -- a character defined entirely by her longings -- is subjected. Hartstone makes Evie pitiable, but she can't quite make her interesting.

Vince Fusco's direction maintains a nice pace and, to the extent possible, keeps the brakes on Hartstone's full-throated penchant for emoting, thus skirting mawkishness as much as possible. Tom Kitney is responsible for the entire design, which includes the set (a close-up view of the top half of the sign's "H"); understated, fluid lighting; Evie's all-black ensemble; and a sound design that blends traffic noises and cheering crowds with, among other things, Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By," the strains of "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy," and the opening music of The Wizard of Oz. The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign may prove to be a useful calling card for the Australian Hartstone -- Evie's polar opposite when it comes to talent and stage presence -- but it's hard to recommend this to anyone looking for an incisive, gripping drama. Evie's story is like something you might find in the back pages of Photoplay or Modern Screen -- even in death, she is following someone else's lead. -- David Barbour


(10 January 2018)

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