Affectionately Yours

West Coast Story: Michele Pawk, Sara Niemietz, and Linda Lavin in Hollywood Arms.Photo: Joan Marcus

Plays about passion are profuse and easy: heterosexual or homosexual, interracial or senescent, kinky or chaste. What is difficult and rare is a play about affection, which is what Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms is. Authentic affection: not syrupy or sentimental, posturing or feel-good-ish, gussied up for theatrical effect. Hollywood Arms is about real people who fight or let one another down, jab and jeer, needle and explode, but also, when need be, help. People who are sarcastic or pathetic failures, impoverished and disappointed. But also people who, disguised or tucked away, have locked up from everyday use a fund of genuine affection for one another. Something like good, inherited crockery, replacing the paper plates on special occasions, something precious and precarious, hauled out however chipped, and however in danger of further chipping.

Hollywood Arms is about a dysfunctional family that has migrated to Hollywood in hope of success and ease. Actually, it was only Louise, the young mother, who left her own mother, Nanny, and her little daughter, Helen, behind in the sticks, while she hoped to become another Louella Parsons, or at least a writer of movie-star profiles. Though Louise, with scant success, is not ready for them, Nanny and Helen descend on her in her seedy apartment house, the Hollywood Arms, sometimes also visited by Louise’s ex-husband, Jody, a decent weakling, tubercular and alcoholic, peddling coupons when not hospitalized.

Louise has a lover she loves, Nick, but he is married. She also has a sweet, solicitous suitor, Bill, whom she does not love. Because he has steady employment, Nanny keeps nagging Louise to marry him, however lovelessly, for a meal ticket. When Louise gets pregnant by Nick, she yields to Bill’s pleading, at the cost of becoming alcoholic herself. There is also the good-natured landlady, Dixie, single mother to the precocious and bratty Malcolm, Helen’s playmate. On the roof, with a view of the City of Angels, the kids play their fantasy games, and here, too, much later, will come Helen’s illegitimate sister, Alice, for air and dreams.

The not exactly unwobbling pivot of all this is Nanny, a stubborn, sardonically wisecracking, drolly hypochondriacal matriarch without portfolio – i.e., with too few people to boss around. But to Louise, Helen, Jody, and Bill, she is a bit of a tyrant, albeit a grouchily benevolent one, and very funny to boot. We see these people at two crucial stages in their lives: in 1941 and again in 1951, when Helen, who is really Carol Burnett, begins a New York theatrical career.

The play is a comedy-drama, a comedy that almost imperceptibly, and never totally, becomes serious. As comedy, too, it is unusual. Unlike most recent comedies that campily feed off their characters’ stupidities, here, despite assorted failings, no one is dumb and an easy butt for jokes. The humor is not in dim-wittedness and one-upmanship but in warmly portrayed everyday fallibility, in comic outbursts during which ordinary people give off funny or funny-sad sparks that keep both the farcical and the maudlin at bay.

That Linda Lavin is a fabulous Nanny you don’t need me to tell you, but this always remarkable actress manages here to surpass even the stiff competition of her own previous triumphs, squeezing every last drop out of her part without the slightest trace of ham or plea for sympathy. Scarcely less admirable is the Louise of Michele Pawk, who lends great heft to a humdrum character, making her intensely human and profoundly moving. Donna Lynne Champlin is unswervingly straightforward as the grown Helen, and Sara Niemietz makes little Helen lovable with never an iota of cuteness. Amazing, too, is the Malcolm of Nicolas King, a child actor with timing to make old pros envious. Frank Wood is an honestly unembellished Jody, and Patrick Clear a restrainedly sympathetic Bill. Leslie Hendrix and Emily Graham-Handley lend savvy support, as do the impeccable décor of Walt Spangler, Judith Dolan’s incisive costumes, and Howell Binkley’s empathetic lighting. Robert Lindsey Nassif’s accompanying music also adds distinctly to our pleasure.

But Hollywood Arms has yet another form of invaluable affection, that of Harold Prince for the characters and their story. You will never see more feelingful insight, more self-effacing love for their quirks, foibles, and kindnesses, from a director for his stage children, big and small. If only this thoroughly endearing play and production could have been seen by Burnett’s daughter and co-author, Carrie Hamilton, dead before even the Goodman Theatre premiere. One fervently hopes that the joy of such a true creation accompanied her on her final journey.

Jackie Mason is a phenomenon. a standout among stand-up comics, he combines the borscht with the black belt, and is tougher than his colleagues. He is, as one of his shows was entitled, politically incorrect, and as usual, lists his legal counsel in the program of Prune Danish. The fun he pokes at Jews and Gentiles, his two favorite targets, and several others, is often daring, yet the sting of sharp observation and tart delivery is palliated by being often screamingly funny.

Mason combines insult comedy with savvy impersonations, acute political satire, and good old-fashioned smuttiness, and he is able to get a slew of jokes even out of such an unlikely subject as neckties. Funny of face, voice, body, walk, and aura, he structures his material and times his delivery unerringly, and can top jokes with other jokes so that before you have half finished laughing at one of them, you are jolted by the next into still more seismic guffaws.

Some think Mason vulgar. But the truth, however comically exaggerated – an aperçu however raunchily worded – cannot truly offend. And to be able to keep it up for well over two hours is astounding. Perhaps this Danish could use a little pruning, but I for one enjoyed it to the last bite.

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Hollywood Arms
New play by Carol Burnett and Carrie Hamilton, staged by Harold Prince and starring Linda Lavin and Michele Pawk.
Prune Danish
Jackie Mason’s latest one-man show.

Affectionately Yours