Little about Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends is news. Most of the stories Arthur tells might as well be read by her off yellowed newspaper clippings. Her delivery is mannered: grandstanding effects punctuated by hammily deadpan understatement and coyly rhetorical pauses emerging from a face cosmeticized into a comic mask. Even when telling anecdotes about real people, Arthur manages to sound sanitized and impersonal. The ladylike Angela Lansbury, she reveals, has a refreshingly foul mouth, though you’ll get no examples here. Lotte Lenya’s dry wit is reduced to remarking to Arthur not to worry, because men like big butts.
More often Arthur tells jokes – set pieces that, though funny, are either old hat or burdened with so much excogitated emphasis as to, rather than prance like Lippizaners, plod like Percherons. It is craftiness rather than craft, artifice rather than art, unintimate and uninvolving. Of course, the audience is full of adoring fans who want nothing more than a pickled Maude or a rehashed Golden Girl, along with some songs associated with Arthurian stage roles. The first, “Fun to Be Fooled,” comes after an overlong, detailed account of favorite recipes (is this a cooking show?), which, for a moment, sounded to me like “Fun to Be Food.” When Arthur sings in her contralto-going-on-basso (profundo, not cantante), we get something like the Rex Harrison sprechstimme – songs more spoken than sung – but without the Harrison charm. Only once, in Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “It Never Was You,” does felt reality break through. It tells us more about the woman than that once, in Minneapolis, she fell into the pit; or that, early on, she had to sing a song called “Garbage,” that, however, she wasn’t going to sing now.
Actually, “Garbage” might have been more stimulating than what we do get, including unspontaneous banter with her unassumingly adroit pianist, Billy Goldenberg. Arthur tells us that, at the Booth Theatre, after years on TV, she feels “out of the box, life-sized.” In fact, her TV-ish material and stand-up delivery reduce the Booth to the box. But at least Arthur makes us appreciate Elaine Stritch’s solo act even more.
Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends at the Booth Theatre