Los Angeles Theater Review: RUTH DRAPER’S MONOLOGUES (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tom Chaits on April 18, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

IS THERE A DIRECTOR IN THE HOUSE?

There is nothing inherently humdrum about the Geffen Playhouse’s production of Ruth Draper’s Monologues but there is nothing particularly exhilarating about it either. With Annette Bening, one of America’s most celebrated actresses, letting loose performing selections by Ruth Draper, one of America’s most celebrated monologists, what could possible go wrong? On paper it must have sounded like a surefire no-brainer; in reality the end result is one giant missed opportunity for greatness.

Annette Bening in RUTH DRAPER'S MONOLOGUES at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael LamontBorn with a silver spoon in her mouth at the end of the nineteenth century, Ruth Draper exhibited a keen knack for observation, developing a unique talent for capturing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the social elite that surrounded her. Her early performances were restricted to private gatherings in hoity-toity homes. Following WWI, life on the stage as a career choice gained acceptance among the well-heeled; thus, she was able to branch out and reach a wider audience. Amassing a repertoire of 39 pieces and an uncanny ability for character vocalizations, she charmed throngs of theatergoers. The subjects of her attention may have been upper class, but their truths, fears, and insecurities were universal, transcending all socio-economic boundaries. After imbibing the words of the four monologues presented in this intermission-free outing, I found it remarkable how her insight has held up over the years, as relevant today as it was decades ago.

Annette Bening in RUTH DRAPER'S MONOLOGUES at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont.The words are there, and there is no disputing Ms. Bening can act (she has four Oscar noms under her belt), so how did it all go south? The direction–or lack thereof. Ms. Bening decided the best person to sit in the director’s chair would be herself. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a brave or a foolhardy choice. It turns out not only to be a disservice to her acting ability but a disservice to the legacy of Ms. Draper as well.

Solo shows are always a difficult feat to pull off. In the hands of a great director and a great performer—as was the case with Humor Abuse (directed by Erica Schmidt and performed by Lorenzo Pisoni, recently seen at the Mark Taper Forum)—it can be pure theatrical magic. If the director is spot on but the actor isn’t up to the challenge—as is the case with The Tallest Tree in the Forest (staged by Moises Kaufman and starring Daniel Beaty, currently running at the Taper)—it can become a tiresome affair. Conversely, if the actor is superb but the direction is off—as is the case here—it can become monotonous.

Annette Bening in RUTH DRAPER'S MONOLOGUES. Photo by Michael Lamont.The four chosen monologues require four distinct voices. Unfortunately, Ms. Bening only delivers one and a half. In three of the four she is basically playing the characters in a similar fashion with little to no variation. While her performance is well-crafted and believable, it is best suited to the third selection, “Doctors and Diets.” In the vein of the high society women Stephen Sondheim references in his “The Ladies Who Lunch,” this tale offers four patrons of the arts who lunch before the theater. Even though they are dining at one of the finest restaurants in town, they are all on fad diets of the day and must forgo the culinary delights (one eats only boiled turnips, one drinks only lemon juice, one eats solely carrots including the greens, and the last diet is the comedy payoff for the scene, so it will go unnamed). Bening is the perfect hostess perfectly organizing all the not-so-rigorous demands of the day. It is a precise and pointed portrayal that serves the piece well.

This interpretation does not work as well in two of the other pieces. The opening monologue, “A Class in Greek Poise,” offers the best opportunity for physical comedy and calls for a broad approach akin to Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn and her “Grecian urns” in The Music Man. The action unfolds in a spa where a group of Rubenesque women embarks on a journey of self- improvement. The door to Annette Bening in RUTH DRAPER'S MONOLOGUES at the Geffen Playhouse - Photo by Michael Lamont.comedic wonder is flung wide open by Ms. Draper’s words but Ms. Bening never walks through it.

In “The Italian Lesson” a matron rattles on incessantly to her servants and children, gossiping on the phone to friends, and taking much delight in the misfortunes of others. She dare not take a breath or she will be forced to face her own demons, misery, and unhappiness. It should play out like a scene from Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (brilliantly directed by George Cukor in 1939) but it never comes close to the manic intensity that is called for. Had there been that manic intensity inserted with fleeting moments of vulnerability, this could have been a comical heartbreaker. Instead, Ms. Bening takes yet again a smooth, straightforward, no-nonsense approach rendering Ms. Draper’s brilliance only mildly amusing.

Annette Bening in RUTH DRAPER'S MONOLOGUES at the Geffen Playhouse - Photo by Michael Lamont.While the women in the aforementioned selections are all of a certain age, “A Debutante at a Dance” offers Ms. Bening a chance to really spread her wings. Playing a young woman who has all the answers but knows none of the questions, she at least makes an attempt at a different characterization. Unfortunately it’s a half-hearted attempt that needed to be carried further to really fly.

Overall, the acting is much more cinematic; in this show, as it was with Draper’s performances, theatricality is essential. Bigger is sometimes better, especially when you are lampooning larger-than-life individuals. A sharp eye for personality traits that make a person unique and yet identifiable is needed to maximize the impact. The full potential of Ruth Draper’s Monologues could have been reached had a more accomplished director overseen the project. There is no doubt Ms. Bening is capable of mining these gems. Had she been cajoled into conjuring a little more Lily Tomlin and a lot less of herself, the evening would have been much more successful and a much more fitting tribute to a nearly forgotten American legend.

photos by Michael Lamont

Ruth Draper’s Monologues
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tuesday – Friday at 8:00 pm
Saturday at 3:00 pm & 8:00 pm, Sunday at 2:00 pm
scheduled to end on May 18, 2014
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com

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