Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
For some reason, modern versions of the story of Faust selling his soul to the devil were popular in the 1950s: Damn Yankees, with its similar plot, opened on Broadway the same year. In this case, Axelrod takes on the Hollywood meat grinder with its glamorous, empty-headed starlets and Machiavellian agents. The playwright had a grudge against the era's Production Code, which would not allow the film version of his previous work, The Seven Year Itch, to include the consummation of the adulterous affair at its heart; this play offers a principled playwright (John Tweel) whose Broadway hit concerns the tortured but unfilmable affair between a prostitute and a gay psychiatrist.
The main plot follows nerdy George MacCauley (Donald Osborne), an unsuccessful hack writer and blank slate who gains success and the love of blonde sex bomb Rita Marlowe (Kari Ginsburg) with the supernatural help of the most powerful agent in Tinseltown, Irving "Sneaky" LaSalle (Steven Lebens). (Audiences in 1955 would recognize the name as a parody of a real Hollywood power broker, Irving "Swifty" Lazar.)
While Mansfield left big ... shoes ...to fill as the self-absorbed Rita, Ginsburg captures the character's babyish, squeaky-breathy voice and astonishing condescension to those around her: when George first comes to interview her, she can't remember his name. Osborne is well cast as a fundamentally decent man whoeven when his soul is at stakewants what's best for those around him, and Lebens is a sleek embodiment of evil. Craig Miller provides an incisive portrait of a studio head, and Tweel makes his character real rather than the author's self-congratulatory reflection.
Director Ellen Dempsey does her best with the pacing, but the action still drags in the middle; eliminating the second intermission could have helped. Anndi Daleske's scenic design uses a few well-chosen pieces of furniture to create the 1950s ambiance, while Rip Claassen's costume design includes one particular triumph of gold lamé and white gauze.
American Century Theater