The New York International Fringe Festival
Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story
The eternal paradox of Judy Holliday is that the actress esteemed for playing a dumb blonde was in reality one smart cookie. But such a juxtaposition doesn’t make for an easy career or easy biography in the entertainment realm, where these days the sound bite is king. So if you know that Billie Dawn and Born Yesterday weren’t the only parts of who Holliday was as both a stage and screen performer and a woman, then you’re not quite the target audience for Bob Sloan’s new play at the New York International Fringe Festival. Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story reinforces a lot of familiar ideas, but stops well short of genuine insight or entertainment.
Holliday’s life would seem tragic enough to warrant dramatic treatment. Born the unassuming Judith Tuvim, she progressed from switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre to the nightclub stage with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (in The Revuers), and then to Hollywood — with disappointing results. History tells, of course, that she returned to New York and later California in triumph, but that blacklisting and cancer quickly took their toll, and that she died in 1965 at age 41.
Sloan’s take, however, is only a slightly serious one that doesn’t satisfactorily address how or why Holliday burned so brightly and so briefly. It’s confusingly constructed, alternately as a memory play (supposedly fashioned by Judy’s mother from beyond the grave, or something, on the night Holliday won the Academy Award for Born Yesterday) and a movie in progress (cast members announce the “scenes” and shout “Take one!” every five minutes or so), and containing two separate sections in which episodes of What’s My Line? are jumbled with House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings. Various elements that would seem to be of considerable importance are mentioned only in passing — Holliday’s Tony-winning musical triumph Bells Are Ringing receives perhaps one minute of dialogue; her final outing (and huge disaster) Hot Spot isn’t mentioned at all; and good luck figuring out who her son and husband (of 10 years) were.
All this makes creating a compelling character difficult for actress Marina Squerciati, though she does have the warm squeak of Holliday’s Billie Dawn voice down cold. Mary Gutzi effectively mines traditional stereotypes in playing Holliday’s bossy Jewish mother, and Adam Harrington and Catherine Lefrere do nice by a wide variety of supporting roles, often of some Very Big People. But because Sloan seems more interested in name-dropping (John Houseman! Orson Welles! Peter Lawford! Dorothy Kilgallen!) than emotional exploration, Squerciati gets lost easily, leaving both the role and the show feeling at most half-formed.
It doesn’t help that, with the exception of a couple of songs Holliday herself wrote, none of the music that defined Holliday’s life is heard here — the title song isn’t aired, and the number that purports to be from The Revuers is in fact one that Sloan himself wrote (with composer Nate Sloan). One presumes this is due to rights issues, but it’s yet something else that makes Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story feel more incomplete and less smart than its luminous subject deserves — or her legacy can benefit from.
VENUE #16: The SoHo Playhouse
Playwright-director Laura Brienza wants her play War Zones to convince you that humanity’s most violent battlefield isn’t a tract of land, but rather the human body. And judging from her piercing and poetic work on the show, it’s hard to disagree. No physical weapons are drawn, but a woman named Joann must watch as several men she cares about succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and eating disorders, robbing her of the only thing she wants from life: to spend as much time with all of them as possible. Each instance is confined to a separate scene, narrated with staccato phrases and flowing reminiscences that beautifully capture the stream-of-consciousness way we relate to (and remember) others, giving the play a deep lyricism its earthy subject needs to feel wholly theatrical.
Marjory Collado is shockingly intense as Joann, flipping instantaneously between rage and adoration as the script requires, and proving Brienza’s subsidiary point that hate and love and more closely related than most of us are comfortable believing. She plows through Joann’s difficult life with tremendous energy and force of will, never letting an easy despair cloud the mind of a woman who’s given every reason to lose her cool over the troubled 45 years the play covers. Brienza and Collado demonstrate unusually well the necessary but tough-to-dramatize process of coping, with neither Joann’s joy nor sorrow completely overwhelming the central story about the damage our bodies can inflict on our souls.
Supporting cast members Robert Klein, Matthew McNear, and Joshua Rocchi are solid in roles like Dad, Boyfriend, Husband, Son, and Daughter, but this is Joann’s show; one of the play’s weaknesses is how men seem introduced into her life only to fade away before her eyes. (The section in which Joann meets, courts, and marries her husband is the most successful specifically because it focuses on how bodies bestow pleasure as well as pain on each other.) And though Joann is passionately in touch with others’ bodies, she’s not shown to have much of a relationship with her own, something that ultimately keeps the play a bit colder and more academic than its otherwise powerful scenes obviously intend. Still, as a meditation on love and loss, War Zones is highly affecting, a reminder to cherish what and who we have in the very few years our bodies are our own to control.
VENUE #18: HERE Arts Center- Dorothy B. Williams Theater
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets