Overheard at the theatre: "This whole play is about Jacqueline Susann. Was she really that important?" Good point to ponder when when evaluating Paper Doll, Mark Hampton (Full Gallop) and Barbara J. Zitwer's new play in its world premiere production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Jacqueline Susann, with her trio of #1 best-selling trash novels ("Valley of the Dolls," "Love Machine," and "Once Is Not Enough"), was a cultural icon of the 1960s. She and her husband, Irving Mansfield, who lived to create and sustain that icon, were certainly colorful characters, and Susann had several interesting segments in her private life that contributed to the persona the world knows as Jacqueline Susann. It seems Susann's personal story is important and substantial enough to warrant a two hour play. Yet Paper Doll only thinly fills that two hours.
Jacqueline Susann, from an early age, wanted to be a "somebody." Raised in affluence, she was a bright underachiever in school, a girl who failed to win the affection of her father, a portrait painter who enlisted his daughter's help in covering his sexual liaisons. Susann tried acting and modeling, looking for the niche to provide her entry into celebrity, but the path that proved successful was novel writing, beginning with "Every Night, Josephine," a book about her life with her beloved poodle. The team of Mansfield and Susann picked up the ball at this point and made promoting Jacqueline Susann an art. Her critically panned but hugely popular novels hit at exactly the right time, with the sex-charged storylines representing the novelization of the sexual revolution of the '60s. Her diagnosis of cancer in 1962 and subsequent mastectomy were shielded from the public as carefully as the existence of her son, an autistic child who was institutionalized, an event which caused immense grief and guilt for Susann. The open marriage with Mansfield was perhaps more a business arrangement than a passionate love match, but there was love and respect between the two. Cancer took Susann's life in 1974.
Paper Doll tells this story mostly through fourth-wall breaking monologues performed by Marlo Thomas as Susann and F. Murray Abraham as Mansfield. The chronology of the vignettes is jumpy, with some scenes acted out and most recalled by the two main characters. The supporting one-liners, humorous stories and outright jokes illustrate the vulgar, outlandish personality of Susann, and really help to hold the audience's attention, which may wander during drawn out soliloquies and over long scenes, such as one in which Susann and Mansfield demonstrate the Jacqueline Susann method of writing a novel and the "Paper Doll" dance at the end. Many points are presented for us to ponder, including: was Jacqueline Susann really very different from "Jackie," the name used to describe the private pre-celebrity Susann? Did the pill-popping, drinking, extramarital and sometimes same sex affairs mean she was uncomfortable with what she had become, or was she merely free-wheeling and Bohemian? The questions are not answered in Paper Doll, and most likely no one knows the answers for certain, but it would be more interesting if the play made more of a commitment with the offered details.
Except for her throaty voice, Marlo Thomas is a more delicate and feminine woman than Jacqueline Susann. Truman Capote would never liken Thomas to a "truck driver in drag," as he did Susann. Delivering the dialogue that perfectly demonstrates the indelicate personality of Susann, Marlo appears to be a bit uncomfortable or unsteady, and often isn't able to provide the coarse, over-confident edge that is necessary for the public Susann, even decked out in flowing wig and Pucci pajama pantsuit. Thomas may be best known to baby boomers for her 1960s sitcom "That Girl," but she is an award winning television actress and producer (four Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award) with a considerable stage resume. Unfortunately, she appears somewhat miscast here.
F. Murray Abraham acts the role of Irving Mansfield with zeal and really connects with his audience. He appears so comfortable on the O'Reilly stage that the play takes on more of an intimate feel when he is speaking. Promoting and elevating Susann to stardom, even to the very end, Abraham's Mansfield always works with Susann, never against her, even when he's sleeping with someone else. Abraham also works with Thomas and brings her closer to more richly delivering her character.
Joanne Genelle and Armando Rodriguez offer intermittent support as several (probably fictional) characters. Genelle is a hoot as Bree, Shelly, and Rainbow, but the play would probably flow just as well as a two person (and one dog) piece. Kudos go to Barney Berloni, who plays Josephine and is as perfectly behaved as can be imagined during his scenes with Thomas.
Another star of the evening is Michael McGarty whose sets are wonderfully inventive and functional. The back wall is a mosaic of edged panels which are backlit in groups with pastel colors. Large sections open to reveal sets, such as a bar and a hotel room, and smaller sections provide support pieces, such as a liquor cabinet, a three-sided mirror, and very importantly as the doggie door through which Josephine makes "her" entrances and exits. Other pieces which are arranged on the stage to represent the Mansfield-Susann home work well, too.
Hampton and Zitwer have a good start with this production of Paper Doll. The wit in their writing is very original and clever, but without the funny bits, the play simply tosses out details without sewing the pieces together. Paper Doll runs through December 9th at the O'Reilly Theater.
Paper Doll. Presented by the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Authors Mark Hampton and Barbara J. Zitwer. Director Leonard Foglia. Set Design Michael McGarty. Costume Design Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting Design Brian Nason. Cast: Marlo Thomas, F. Murray Abraham, Joanne Genelle, Armando Rodriguez, Barney Berloni. At the O'Reilly Theatre through December 9th. For more information and tickets: call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.
-- Ann Miner