Parks breaks a leg twice
By Philip Pearce
Play writing teacher Lee Brady tells local budding dramatists they’ll stand a better chance of getting produced if they write juicy parts that rep company actors just can’t resist. That’s essentially what Tom Parks, local veteran of a quarter century in TV and movies, has done with Break a Leg, a brace of one act duets playing this month at the Carl Cherry Center. Parks and his two scripts are stylishly served by the versatile Carol Daly and the spirited Garland Thompson, a pair of skilled local performers who obviously revel in not one but two juicy roles apiece.
The subject is live theater. Parks underlines the common theme with lots of Broadway chit chat and name dropping and by setting the two contrasted stories 63 years apart but in the same Broadway dressing room.
Return Engagement happens in 1950, with an opening monologue that draws us into the anguish of a nearly sixty-year-old actress named Ruth Reddington. A couple of decades after she’s boozed, drugged and philandered her way from Broadway stardom into Broadway oblivion, she’s due back on stage tonight in a key supporting role that poses every has-been’s perennial question: Can I Still Pull It Off? Into Ruth’s chaotic dressing room strides a glib and jaunty younger man in a tuxedo who turns out to be the third of her husbands, a former bit player she homed in on back in her golden years. His name is Steve and he’s become a kind of Joe Gillis to Ruth’s Norma Desmond. Together, they clash, sometimes with the desperate forced dependence of two drowning swimmers, sometimes in an ugly rehash of highlights from their rocky marriage.
The second play of the evening, Autobiography, pits an amiable and rumpled semi-successful journalist named Johnny Richards against an irrepressible former movie sex goddess and horror film queen named Shirley Davos. Very much between engagements, Shirley has been unexpectedly handed a plum offer. She’s to spend some weeks substituting for the ailing leading lady of a play Shirley freely admits she doesn’t understand. Never fazed, she arranges to meet Richards in her newly claimed Broadway dressing room for a final Q and A session for the autobiography he is ghosting for her. Money problems rear their ugly heads and are only made worse when the play’s sick star stages an unwelcome recovery.
The acting is a pleasure to watch. In the first play, Daly’s Ruth Reddington is a harrowing figure, messing with her hair, squinting dispiritedly at her reflection, belting down suppressed gulps of pills and liquor, at times pleading like a pathetic child, at other times screeching like a harridan straight out of Albee. Thompson matches her. His Steve is a man whose slick optimism and well-tailored glitz cover the ugly truth his wife ultimately throws in his face: if he’s not a loser, he is at best an “underachiever.”
Autobiography features two characters as endearing in their emotional ups and downs as Ruth and Steve are downbeat and discouraged. I loved Daly’s playful feet and legs. Along with her sudden radiant grins, her whole body signals a woman who remains childlike and hopeful, never mind a hotchpotch of past social, sexual and professional crises that would have floored the self-absorbed Ruth. It’s not always easy to write a play about two nice people who remain nice to the final curtain, but Autobiography does just that. Shirley and her accommodating scribe Johnny are a mutual admiration society, as different from one another as their contrasting cell phone ring tunes, a fact Parks cleverly exploits in a couple of fugues of concurrent, interacting phone chatter. This second play is the real gem of the evening.
For all its intensity, Return Engagement seems more of a work in progress. Both scripts offer their author the enviable opportunity of assessing his written work by seeing it fleshed out by living actors. Return Engagement begins well enough and ends with considerable power, as Thompson drives home the important final moments and message without delivering a single line of dialogue. What I would hope Tom Parks will do is to look at the long two-character sequence between Ruth’s opening monologue and Steve’s final and satisfying emergence as something more than a shallow playboy. The fact is Return Engagement offers only two real-time, in-the-moment dramatic happenings. The first is Steve’s decision to stay at the theater supporting his anguished spouse instead of going out on the town with a young man who has recently caught his bisexual eye. The second is the decision Ruth makes about her daunting first night. Everything else is events and relationships stuck back in or springing directly from the past, and this gives rise, in my view, to too many verbal repetitions of material we have already taken on board. Ruth’s message of “I’m desperate! Help me!” and Steve’s response of “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine!” are offered once or twice too often in words that echo each other and slow down the action. The play would benefit, I think, from being pared down by at least ten minutes, with perhaps also a look at one or two events that seem forced and illogical. Would the wounded and status-obsessed Ruth, for example, have waited through eight long weeks of rehearsal and only now, on opening night, checked the quality of her dressing room against those of the two higher-paid stars she envies and resents so deeply?
A final if minor quibble: it seems surprising that the entire decor and all the equipment of the dressing room remain unchanged between 1950 and 2013. Or maybe it’s symbolic of the dogged persistence of Broadway theater which has refused to give up the ghost however many pundits have been predicting its demise for half a century.
The double bill continues weekends at the Carl Cherry until September 29th.
Photo: Tom Parks by Ken Doo.