Nothing guarantees a halo to an artist—especially if female and young—like suicide. Half of Sylvia Plath’s fame, as poet, is warranted; the other half, as feminist martyr, has become a noisy and noisome plathitude. For this and other reasons, much of the writing about Plath, including previous theatrical efforts, has been highly questionable.
In the one-woman play entitled Edge (presumably because that’s what it sets our teeth on), Angelica Torn, as Plath, sits in a chair, all the scenery the author, Paul Alexander, calls for. Out of her generosity, the producer, Daryl Roth (whose second namesake theater the show plays at), has contributed also a small table and a glass of water. But this spareness is as nothing compared with the artistic exiguity of the proceedings. We get the thrice-told tale of Plath’s life, in words that, whether hers or Alexander’s, add nothing new. Those who care about Plath know all this already; those who don’t will only trade in their indifference for excruciation. Merely during the exhausting first act—boredom is tiring—I thought I’d go out of my mind, which Plath, who attempted suicide a couple of times before she succeeded, may well have been. Let me, incidentally, lay to rest the myth that she was pretty; meeting her, I found her perfectly ordinary.
Yet whether or not she was a psychopath, that is how Torn, the daughter of two good actors, plays her. Or it may be how Alexander has directed her. It is never clear whether she is supposed to be telling the audience her story or is meant to convey the maundering interior monologue of a woman reviewing her life in what she calls her last hour—though even the play’s first hour feels much longer than that. The actress sometimes rattles on sotto voce at tongue-twister speed, sometimes becomes affectedly histrionic, sometimes lapses into stupefyingly sullen pauses, and once has a shouting fit to tear the house down. Mostly, though, she sounds snotty. What she is or does in Act Two, I shall happily never know.
Some shows fall between the cracks, as almost happened to Boobs! The Musical, which opened in May. This is a revue made from the songs written and sung by Brooklyn-born Ruth Wallis, a not unpopular chanteuse of the Eisenhower era and beyond. An attractive woman in dazzling gowns, she thrived on three continents in small supper clubs, in cocktail and hotel lounges, and at parties, performing to her own piano accompaniment. Wallis, who is still with us, specialized in double entendres, understanding that suggestiveness is sexier than blatancy. Radio stations and major record companies eschewed her, her songs were banned in Boston, and Australian Customs confiscated her records, all of which merely added to her aura.
But Wallis grew older and show business became more infantile, and the two parted company. The singer raised a family and recorded for her and her husband’s label, the Wallis Original Record Corporation, discs stashed under record-store counters that still sell to fans worldwide. And now Michael Whaley has rediscovered her and co-produced the musical he co-wrote with Steve Mackes. It is subtitled The World According to Ruth Wallis, and a canny, tuneful, and niftily naughty world it is.
Twenty-one Wallis songs are enacted by six young performers—enacted because they are turned into playlets, enlisting the services of everyone from Dr. Frankenstein to Carmen Miranda (performed by a man). The tunes and lyrics form a morganatic marriage between Noël Coward and Betty Hutton; the skits built around them are rather more explicit, sometimes too much so. Take the lyrics to “Johnny’s Got a Yo-Yo”: “He always let me play with it, / It’s the best toy I ever had. / He never lends it out to any other kids in town, / ’Cause I’m the only one who knows / How to get it up and down.”
Then there’s the one about the sailor who has “the cutest little dinghy / In the Navy, heave ho.” Also the one concerning the cross-dressing husband, about whom Kristy Cates sings of “Queer Things” happening to her. Sometimes the skits add contemporary relevance: “Bill” is proleptically about a recent president, with the voluminous Rebecca Young as a cigar-wielding Monica. The trouble is that, despite good pianism from Steve Bocchino, the broadly acted-out skits overwhelm the hummable melodies and booby-trapped lyrics. Still, all performers are good, and Cates, who also embodies Ruth Wallis, especially so. Donna Drake’s direction and Lawrence Leritz’s modest choreography are appealingly apposite; Robert Pease and J. Kevin Draves’s costumes, hilarious. There is some male and no female baring, and a gay sensibility is lurking. But do not count me among the knockers of Boobs!
At Judy Speaks, I didn’t know whom to be more embarrassed for: Mary Birdsong, who contrived this pitiful one-woman farrago and enacts it; Judy Garland, to whose saddest aspects this is an anti-tribute; or the audience, which managed to whoop up and applaud 90 minutes of tasteless tautology.
Tautology for many reasons. First, because Judy has been impersonated to death—and by the way, bevies of female impersonators have done her better than Mary Birdsong. Second, because there isn’t an iota of new material here, and the old emerges like one of those cheap reproductions of master paintings sold for peanuts. Third, because often we get Birdsong in duplicate, simultaneously projected on a screen behind her, even though one of her is more than enough. Lastly, because in the tiny Ars Nova theater, with obstreperous amplification, things are twice as loud as bearable.
This said, Birdsong, despite a few bits she seems to have worked harder on, does not—in word, song, or acting—capture Garland. Judy had a slight catch, a touch of sympathy-arousing plangency, in her voice, and a vulnerable presence that cried out for protection; Birdsong sounds like a typical lounge singer, and comes across as a bit of a bruiser to boot. She was quite good recently in Adult Entertainment, but she should leave Garland alone. As for Garland’s fans—gay, straight, or otherwise—instead of patronizing Judy Speaks, they should picket it.