Thursday, November 23, 2006

'Legends!' Lays an Egg

Here is a preview of my review of Legends!, which should appear in The Metro Herald a week from Friday:

Legends! Lays an Egg:
Twenty Years On, “Comedy” Still Not Ready for Broadway
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Advice to producers: If you’re putting on a show about putting on a show, don’t include a line like “We’re putting on a steaming turd.” For a theatre critic, that’s the equivalent of handing a teenage boy the keys to a Ferrari with a pat on the back and a “Go for it, kid!”

Legends!, a two-act comedy by James Kirkwood, opened at the National Theatre on Thanksgiving eve, and oh!, what a turkey it was.

Developed two decades ago as a vehicle for theatre legends Carol Channing and Mary Martin, this “revival” of a play that never made it to New York was reconceived, instead, as a vehicle for legendary television rivals Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

As one of the few who saw the original, I can testify that Channing and Martin were far better suited for the material – what little there is of it – and that Collins and Evans fall flat. If one really wanted to take this show to Broadway (the producers’ stated goal), the roles of Sylvia and Leatrice could be far more adroitly handled by the likes of Candice Bergen and Lily Tomlin. Who knows? Perhaps they were offered the chance and discerningly turned it down.

In a nutshell, Legends! is about two washed-up actresses brought together by a manipulative producer who wants them to star in his play. Apparently the producers of Legends! were successful in getting life to imitate art when they recruited Collins and Evans to play themselves – or, at least, cardboard cutouts of themselves.

What we have in Legends! is unrealized farce.

Kirkwood’s play has only enough comic moments in it to fill a half-hour failed pilot episode for a 1970s or ‘80s TV sitcom. The deadening moments in between are best forgotten. What’s worse, that sitcom would not center around the alleged legends of Sylvia and Leatrice (Collins and Evans), but rather around the secondary character of Aretha, the maid (played by Tonye Patano), who is forced to deal with their antics with composure and aplomb, despite gratuitous racial barbs aimed at her by Sylvia.

The characters of Sylvia and Leatrice are drawn so poorly that it is hard to eke out any sympathy for them, even after heart-tugging speeches about a cruel mother and a mastectomy. Of the two, Joan Collins as Sylvia may deliver the better performance, but that’s not saying much: Linda Evans’ portrayal of Leatrice has about as much electricity as Martha Stewart on Valium. It is hard to imagine either of these two actresses as Oscar-winning movie stars (as the script alleges).

Unfortunately for our leading ladies, the best writing (and acting) in the play comes with two short, curtain-raising scenes, which feature solo turns by Joe Farrell as Martin Klemmer, a budding Max Bialystock and “producer of the off-Broadway hit, ‘Craps,’” who hopes to produce the turkey-within-a-turkey. (His proposed title, which serves little purpose: “Star Wars: The Musical.”)

Farrell’s two monologues both involve multiple telephone conversations (one in the first act including Paul Newman, who is such a good sport that he allows his voice to be heard). In the second act, he juggles receivers from three subway-station pay phones as he deals with potential investors, his secretary, and a caller to a suicide hotline. He hits every note with a bull’s eye, as he does later, when he finally gets to interact with Sylvia, Leatrice, and Aretha.

As for the writing itself, it is embarrassingly flaccid, and in some cases demonstrates that adjustments have not been made for the new cast. (An off-color joke about Ethel Merman only really had impact when it made Mary Martin blush.) A line about Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, and Eddie Fisher simply went over the heads of a 21st-century audience. References to Bernard Jacobs and the Nederlanders might work for a New York audience, but on the road the point is lost in the ether. Scenes involving a male stripper and hash brownies are sad examples of "been there, done that." Fresh is a not a word to describe Legends!

Some of the play’s best comic potential is wasted. Off-stage characters are mentioned, tantalizingly described, and then forgotten. (I would have liked to have known more about the woman eaten by cats in her snowbound Vermont farmhouse.) Set-ups in the first act lack a substantial payoff in the second – even though they are transparently set-ups, and we see limp payoffs casually thrown off.

I came to Legends! under the disadvantage of just having seen the tributes to Neil Simon on the PBS telecast of the Kennedy Center’s presentation of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Remembering what a master like Simon can do makes Kirkwood’s writing in Legends! pale by comparison.

There is a nugget of farce in Legends! that could have been fully realized if the script had been adapted as, say, a television movie, which could have included flashbacks, location shots, and a larger cast of characters. A low-budget stage production lacks the capacity for these things, and the constraints show.

If Legends! succeeds – and I use the term advisedly – it will be by relying on the star power (such as it remains) of Joan Collins and Linda Evans. Yet fans of Dynasty will be disappointed to learn that the pair’s only real catfight occurs off-stage and that the rest of the play is limited to weak verbal sparring and sub-par bitchiness.

Only the above-the-title names are going to fill theatre seats for Legends!, and if the investors are going to see any return, this show had better stay on the road for a long, long time, since it’s surely not ready for Broadway.

Legends!, directed by John Bowab and starring Joan Collins, Linda Evans, Joe Farrell, Will Holman, Ethan Matthews, and Tonye Patano opens November 21 and runs through December 3 at the National Theatre in Washington. Tickets, priced $36.25 to $71.25, are on sale now through Telecharge, at or by calling (800) 447-7400. Tickets are also available at The National Theatre box office. Group tickets are available by calling (800) 432-7780.

For more background on Legends!, see my "Interview with Tonye Patano."

Update: Washington Post drama critic Nelson Pressley largely agrees with my assessment, though he gives a bit more attention to the physical look of the play: costumes, set design. No one else seems to have yet bothered to review Legends!

Further Update: More reviews -- Tom Avila in D.C.'s Metro Weekly calls Legends! "decidedly undelightful." The play next moves to Kansas City, where it opens on December 5.

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