Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Key to the success is the casting of Kathleen Turner, whose casual delivery captures Ivins well (even if her Texas accent is much deeper than Ivins' was). Turner gets the jovial, feisty tone just right, always making it clear that Ivins was fun to be around but not someone you should cross.
The play depicts Ivins on a typical working day, cranking out a column while reflecting on her life and times. In the background is some clutter (desks and office chairs arranged haphazardly), but director David Esbjornson's production is uncluttered, letting Turner speak directly to the audience with only an occasional projection used to illustrate a passage from Ivins' life. (Maya Ciarrocchi's projections are used sparingly, but they include too many pictures of the real Ivins, forcing Turner to compete against the person she's portraying. It's a too-frequent reminder that we're not seeing the real thing.)
The script by journalists (and sisters) Margaret Engel and Allison Engel takes much of its material directly from Ivins' writing, and there are lots of Ivins' jokes ("I am known for my joie de vivre, as they say in Waco") mixed in with her reflections on politics ("Once you realize they lied about race, everything else can be called into question"). Ivins realized that humor was the best way to criticize a politician, and the character-rich Texas legislature gave her lots of material. But she never let her sense of humor overwhelm her sense of outrage: Turner-as-Ivins ridicules George W. Bush by calling him "Shrub," but in a more sober moment she notes that Bush "provided endless material; he also provided thousands of graves."
What's missing here is the fact that Ivins and Bush actually had a cordial personal relationship, an observation that might have humanized the play's portrayal of Ivins. There's also no mention of her disdain for Bill Clinton, which might have driven home the point that Ivins was no political pushover. Instead, the play probes her psyche with some too-brief reflections about Ivins' personal life (a fractured relationship with her tough father, the death of one of her lovers in Vietnam). It's all very interesting, but you don't come away with the feeling that you actually know Molly, or understand what turned her into such an entertaining gadfly.
Still, entertaining is what she was, and the Engels do manage to show that she was more than just a collection of one-liners. Red Hot Patriot may feel more like a lecture about Ivins than a drama at times, but with such a rich subject, that's not a bad thing. Ivins died of breast cancer at age 62 in 2007, but Turner's buoyant performance makes her liveand laughagain.
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins runs through April 25, 2010, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $69, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.
Speaking of kick-ass wit ... no one had more of it than Noël Coward. (However, he would, no doubt, have frowned upon the use of the term "kick-ass," especially when used as an adjective.) The Walnut Street Theatre is reviving one of Coward's earliest successes, Fallen Angels, and their sprightly production makes a strong case for ranking this little-known work among Coward's best comedies.
Julia and Jane have been "great friends" since age eight or nine, and each has been married for five years to the sort of husband who brings them respectability but not much passion. Then they learn that Maurice, a Frenchman that each of them had a fling with seven years ago in Italy ("the one grand passion in both our lives"), is visiting Londonon the same day that their husbands are leaving town to go golfing. The news sends both ladies into hysterics ("We will both go down like ninepins!"), not to mention guilt ("We're being so disloyal." "Yes, but only in thought so far."). Meanwhile, they down champagne and martinis while awaiting Maurice's arrival, making their attempt to maintain proper English dignity a losing battle. But then again, as Julia says, "One can carry good manners too far."
Fallen Angels may not be too deep, but it's a very funny play, told with a lot of affection and a lot of style. Paul Wonsek's classy set design and Ellis Tillman's sumptuous costumes capture the elegance of upper crust 1925 London society beautifully. And director Malcolm Black's staging never lags for a moment; this isn't a sedate comedy of manners. When the ladies get drunk, they do it in a manner that reflects their breeding; Jane staggers in a precise, ladylike way, while Julia misses the armrest as she attempts to lift herself out of her chair.
Susan Riley Stevens' understated delivery is just right for Julia, while Karen Peakes' frenzied take on Jane runs off with the final act of this three-act comedy. Greg Wood and Bill Van Horn are the wonderfully befuddled husbands, and Dan Olmstead is the man of mystery. Best of all is Jennie Eisenhower as Saunders, Julia's new maid, who proves to be a master of just about every task she's asked to accomplish, and a few more besides: she can mix drinks, speak French, recommend golf clubs, expound on the Greek orator Demosthenes. She can even sing and play piano better than her employer, and she does it all with a droll, delighted expression that lets you know she enjoys being the smartest person in the room.
"It's all such supreme nonsense," says Maurice at the evening's end. That sums up it all up perfectly.
Fallen Angels runs through May 2, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $60, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.