That Dorothy Parker
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
The Alice Complex
The Women's Movement may have slowed, but its motion never completely stops. It's the theory of feminist author Sally (Lisa Banes) - and ostensibly the intriguing if shaky play of which she's the center, Peter Barr Nickowitz's The Alice Complex - that it's a story told over and over again across the generations in different guises.
Lewis Carroll realized it in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which inspired the title for both the overall play and Sally's most renowned book, which is still attracting readers a quarter-century after its publication. One, named Rebecca (Xanthe Elbrick), is so enamored of the book's philosophy ("We're all Alices falling down the rabbit hole, left by the ghost of castration") that she's tracked down Sally one Easter evening - and isn't willing to loosen her grip on her idol or her ideals.
Nickowitz, however, shrewdly prevents his play from being merely a celebration of garden-variety feminizing. He explores not only Sally and Rebecca's contretemps over words that haven't advanced as the ideas behind them have, but also how the impact their confrontation might have on the future of female liberation. Banes plays six characters and Elbrick five, and they all become enmeshed in the never-ending argument about what women should be and how they should behave - with men or (especially) with each other.
That dispute assumes forms as diverse as a counseling session and an Off-Broadway play (as witness from both inside a dressing room and outside the theater), and surprises about how far it's spread never stop unfolding. Director Bill Oliver enforces a rigid clarity that keeps the ever-changing characters and locations easy to follow. And Banes and Elbrick are likewise vital, stabilizing presences, smoothly and smartly vascillating between decades, points of view, and even accents as they chart the causes and effects of one night of crime - and the darker implications it has for women everywhere.
The Alice Complex still feels somewhat unfinished: A few characters could be fleshed out more, to better pinpoint them as key players within a strange saga; and the final scene institutes an unnatural button, stopping things quite literally in midsentence, that suggests an unplanned blackout more than the endless continuation of an important conversation. It's undoubtedly Nickowitz's point that there's always more to be said, but The Alice Complex's alluring complexities need a bit more elucidation before their theatrical treatment may be effectively closed.
Run Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Is it possible to admire the messenger but be weary of the message? If so, then That Dorothy Parker is an admirable one-woman vehicle for its author and star, Carol Lempert. Otherwise, it's an elegantly sputtering retread.
Lempert brings a handsome, whiskey-lubricated sophistication to Parker, the witteuse still famous today for her biting contributions to dialogue around the Algonquin Round Table. Holed up in the hotel on a January evening in 1943, she's puzzling over the eulogy she's been charged to write for her longtime friend and sparring partner Alexander Woollcott. How can she best to capture the man, in all his literate, effeminate, and acid-tongued glory?
Considering his history of course leads her to reflect on hers as well, and it's colorful: a marriage to author Alan Campbell, a fling with her New Yorker colleague and officemate Robert Benchley, and her strangely sobering coverage of the Spanish Civil War. All of which are punctuated by her reminiscences of the other notables at the Table, such as George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and her many caustic observations about theatre and the world containing it.
Lempert finds every color and contradiction in Parker - the realist versus the poet, the writer versus the woman, the public grouse versus the private figure - and incorporates them all into a startlingly adult portrayal of unwanted fame and unrequited responsibility. But the trouble both actress Lempert and playwright Lemper face is that dramatizing someone so eminently quotable seldom allows her to become more than eminently quoted.
"You can lead a horticulture...", "...under the host," "...eggs in one bastard" - about the only classic missing is her description of Katharine Hepburn's performance in The Lake running "the gamut of emotions, from A to B." Because Parker's quips have never departed the lexicon, and have wound their way into any number of other works - I can name at least two recent musicals that were loaded with them - this is less characterization than characteristic.
Eulogizing Woollcott is a refreshing twist that lends real opportunity for humanity, and Lempert and her sensitive director, Janice Goldberg, exploit it whenever they can. But it's not quite enough to keep That Dorothy Parker from feeling like a vehicle for delivering those choice barbs rather than one for baring the soul of a woman whose written frankness has increasingly obscured her humanity with the passage of time.
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes