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Theatre in Review: Smart Blonde (59E59)

Jonathan Spivey, Andréa Burns. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Well into Willy Holtzman's new play with music, the one and only Judy Holliday, already a stage and film star, is hauled before the HUAC. It is the height of the Red Scare and, never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, the actress has plenty to worry about, nonetheless. As she has already recalled, she was the prototype red diaper baby: "In my family we waited for Trotsky. Seriously. And waited. My Uncle Joe used to drag me out in front of his friends and have me recite the names of the original Politburo." She also cut her teeth as a young performer entertaining at events sponsored by politically suspect organizations such as the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. And her name has turned up in Red Channels, the McCarthy-era scandal sheet that derailed many a show business career.

Holliday is, justifiably, terrified, but she is also deeply offended when a lawyer counsels her to channel Billie Dawn, her dumb blonde character from Born Yesterday, on the witness stand. Possessed of a Mensa-level intelligence and tastes in reading that range from Georges Bernanos to Leo Tolstoy, she isn't thrilled to appear as a brassy nitwit, her brain permanently soaked in peroxide. She tries playing it straight, deflecting her interrogators with a series of cagey non-answers. But when the questions hit too close to home -- nailing her friend (and sometime lover) Yetta Cohn -- Holliday pauses, unbuttons her blouse, crosses her legs, and, her voice jumping a full octave, converts herself, on the spot, into Billie Dawn. She parries her interrogators with oh-silly-me responses that have the desired effect and, suddenly, Smart Blonde turns into a play.

Sad to say, it doesn't last. Before and after this exchange -- and barring one or two other moments -- Smart Blonde is a collection of sound bites trying to pass as biographical drama. Holliday, one of the most indelible stage and film personalities of her time, had a relatively brief career -- her heyday lasted from 1946 to 1960 -- but she is well remembered, not least because her two legendary Broadway performances, in Born Yesterday and Bells Are Ringing, are preserved on celluloid. As the play makes clear, she had a fairly tumultuous time of it: A child of divorce, she was, well into adulthood, yoked to a needy, clinging mother. She had the good fortune of teaming up with Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein in the nightclub act The Revuers, but an early Hollywood adventure was a flop, after which she had to extricate herself from the octopus arms of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Even after her Broadway Cinderella moment, replacing Jean Arthur in the tryout of Born Yesterday and promptly becoming the toast of the town, there was an army of red-baiters and a failed marriage to the record producer David Oppenheim. A long struggle with cancer ended her life at the criminally early age of 44.

Smart Blonde touches on these points and many more, offering a rapid Gray Line bus tour through the highs and lows of Holliday's all-too-brief career. Providing a framework is a recording session, in 1964, for an album being produced by her lover, jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan; unexpectedly tense, she delays getting the numbers on vinyl, killing time with flashbacks. Trouble is, so much happens so quickly that none of it has any impact: The lady rushes from one crisis to the next, each of which is stated rather than dramatized. The script's many factoids are presented without sufficient context: Was Yetta Cohn her only same-sex lover? We never learn. Holliday appears to be trapped at home with her mother -- until, suddenly, she isn't. Her marriage goes by in such a flash that it's hard to know if it meant much of anything. (Apparently, both partners were unfaithful.)

Holtzman tries to capture the wisecracking style of Holliday's film comedies, but the results are half-hearted at best. Nervous about recording, she asks her sound engineer, "Have we considered backup singers? Like maybe the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?" Her uncle, admonishing her for playing dumb onstage, says, "You graduated first in your high school class." "Second," Holliday corrects him. "Sure, if you want to count that lesbian introvert," he snaps. (Using "lesbian" for a punchline? Really?) And then there's the following exchange between the very young Holliday and her irresponsible father, Abe:

Abe: Helen [Holliday's mother] is stronger than you think.

Holliday: Daddy, I can't leave her alone. The day after you left, I had to pull her head out of the oven!

Abe: She likes to clean.

Holliday: With the pilot light off?

As character dialogue, the above is pure vaudeville, and a rather poor example, at that. It has the rhythm, but not the content, of wit and it leaves us stranded somewhere between real insight and easy sitcom-style laughs. Too much of Smart Blonde plays out in this fashion.

However, even the weakest lines sound better when handled by Andréa Burns, the delightful Broadway pro who plays Holliday. Equipped with a smile brighter than anything in the lighting rig; eyes that flicker, alternately, with flames of mischief and regret; and a voice that hits air-raid siren levels when fury sets in, she creates a plausible version of the sometimes-troubled woman lurking behind the blonde facade. A reluctant recording artist, she slouches toward the microphone like a bad pupil sent to the principal's office. Even so, her rueful rendition of "What'll I Do" lays bare the lost soul behind the laughter. Given a pretty good line -- stuck in her career and personal life, she announces, "I'm going to make the same movie over and over the rest of my life and die alone with twenty-five cats crawling over me" -- she manages to make something of it. And, reprising the famous gin rummy scene from Born Yesterday, she performs like a cardsharp, landing laughs with each shuffle of the deck. (Under the direction of Peter Flynn, also responsible for the super-brisk pace of Smart Blonde, Burns played Billie in a regional theatre production of Born Yesterday. I bet it was a beauty.)

The three remaining cast members are so busy coming and going, swapping out characters, that it's a miracle they (or we) know who they are at any given moment. Mark Lotito is solid as, among others, Holliday's sound engineer, Green, and Oppenheim, with whom she rather improbably plays strip Scrabble. The same goes for Jonathan Spivey as Garson Kanin, Zanuck, and one of Holliday's Senatorial nemeses. Andrea Bianchi juggles various Great Women of Show Business, including Comden, Marilyn Monroe (who shows up to compare dumb-blonde poses with Holliday), and -- in a wicked, sketch-comedy turn -- a pushy, gesticulating Ruth Gordon.

The production design has atmosphere in spades. Tony Ferrieri's grimy, well-used recording studio set is so authentic it seems to breathe an atmosphere of stale cigarette smoke and cold coffee. Michael McDonald's costumes and Alan Edwards' lighting fit the bill. (Ferrieri and Edwards are responsible for the projections, which include theatre marquees and jazz club signs.) Joanna Lynne Staub's sound design provides a piano rendition of "New York, New York," the Twentieth Century Fox trumpet flourish, a judge's gavel, a crying baby, and many other effects. She also provides reinforcement for Lotito when he's in the sound booth and for Holliday when she's "recording" the number "What's the Rush," an appealing ballad on which she and Mulligan collaborated.

The best thing about Smart Blonde is that it made me want to revisit the film of Bells Are Ringing to take in Holliday's peerless rendition of the show's eleven o'clock number. ("I'm going back/Where I can be me/To the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company!") It's a fascinating performance, filled with eccentric gestures that would seem false or bizarre on any other performer, but which on her are incontrovertibly right. (Throughout her career, the star benefited from material tailored to her strengths by the likes of Comden, Green, Jule Styne, and George Cukor.) Judy Holliday was the kind of personality that, then and now, is as rare as rubies -- as Smart Blonde, unfortunately, makes clear. - David Barbour

(27 March 2019)

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