Stage and Cinema – Concealing Judy Holiday

If you really never cared about Judy Holliday, because you only know her from grating performances in unsophisticated 50’s movies, you’re not alone. (Turns out she may have hated them more than 1.) And I was warned that Concealing Judy Holliday is built upon the somewhat familiar premise of a deathbed fever dream in which the actress’s life and career are given a travelogue going-over. So I confess that my motivation to see this play was prompted largely by my editor’s insistence and by its proximity to my house. But now that I have received the benefit of Wendy Johnson’s tine writing and performance, under Guillermo Cienfuegos’s inspired direction, I care a lot about both this production and this company. As this is the fourth show of Pacific Resident Theatre’s 25th Anniversary season, one may say that, not for the first time, I have come late to the good party.

Theatricality is not its own reward, but it is the nature of good theater. PRT here delivers a sensationally moving interpretation of some historical moments that deserve celebration. This story in pastiche of a genius whose career was derailed by injustice, of a woman whose romances were unlike fairy tales, of an artist disallowed from achieving her potential, needs telling and seeing, PRT has done the telling; the rest is up to you.

In her writing of this potentially melodramatic material. Ms Johnson consistently avoids the maudlin unless she can find humor in it (with one exception, noted below). She is unafraid of the horrifying, the absurd. and the deadly sober, and she can play all these as well as she has written them. In playing the title role, she never leaves the stage; one is grateful for her presence and afraid she will go. Her Judy Holliday impression is spot-on, but she finds a beguiling and tragic humanity in this deep character, and the series of well-chosen biographical details she has written plays to her strengths as an actor and a dramatist: an awkward first date: a humiliating and hilarious Red-baiting Senate hearing; a series of hideous scenes with her neurotic mother, a breathtaking and desperately sad morphine nightmare. These moments play very nicely, but the structure always draws us back to the actress’s bedside deathwatch, and around the onehour mark the writing makes an unfortunate veer into superficial sentimentality (“1 was never enough!”). But this side trip only lasts a few minutes, and the show is back on its feet, literally, almost before the lag begins to tell on one’s patience.

Mr Cienfuegos works exactly along the lines of the writing, creating an eerie expressionistic mindscape that invests the play with even more of the same brand of magic. He moves the action in delicious curves, utilizing Elizabeth McKenzie’s choreography so deftly that it flows easily from the infectious kinetic energy onstage. His stage pictures encourage the eye to rove while maintaining focus on the important action, and he makes of this narrow, deep playing space (and Norman Scott’s brilliant, flexible, but essentially one-room set) a whole world. with freezing poles, sweaty tropics, and uneasy but very funny temperate zones. Mr Scott’s lighting per fectly serves this vision, and Sarah Zinsser’s quirky costumes add tonality to a monochromatic visual universe.

The ensemble players, many of whom play multiple parts, deserve more than passing mention. Every one of these players is a seasoned veteran whose energy and passion carry a quick, dense story to its inevitable and compelling end. Marilyn Fox displays a stunning breadth of ability, delighting with her kooky yet harrowing take on Holliday’s mother Helen before assuming the role of Holliday’s idol, actress I.aurette Taylor, and suddenly freezing the marrow of the house. Similarly, the difference between Kevin Quinn’s easily sympathetic Gerry and his vicious doofus Senator Arens is a very big difference indeed. ‘l’errance Elton’s impressive array of roles includes Bob Hope and Holliday’s not-quite-smart-enough husband David, while Dan Cole plays, among others, Groucho Marx and an old grandmother in a babushka: all credibly. Sarah Zinsser’s Tallulah Bankhead (functioning as a kind of narcissistic Greek chorus, or warped commentator) literally stops the show with a surprise scene-steal, equal parts risk-taking writing and all-theway acting. Melody Doyle, as Holliday’s nurse and as her policewoman lover Yetta, is natural and believable.

photos by Keith Stevenson

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