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The Rise of Dorothy Hale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Badalucco, Sarah Wynter, and Sarita Choudhury.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Following the apparent suicide of actress Dorothy Hale in late 1938, noted playwright Clare Booth Luce commissioned a portrait of her from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Though originally intended as a gift to remind Hale's grieving mother of the beauty of her daughter's life, Kahlo's painting became a powerful (and arguably disgusting) statement about the agony and controversy swirling about Hale's life and death. Luce's reaction was to seal the painting away for decades, thus confirming that her disagreement with Kahlo was truly a war between social elegance and ugly realty.

Those sides are battling yet today, and blight the landscape of Myra Bairstow's new play about their struggle with propriety and with each other, The Rise of Dorothy Hale, in ways the playwright likely never intended. This fitful drama, playing at St. Luke's Theatre, tries to recreate the circumstances surrounding Luce's search for grace within tragedy and Kahlo's eliciting grace from tragedy, but in the end is itself neither graceful nor tragic.

There's a messiness about the play that extends beyond Hale's final hours and into the presentation itself. The story shifts between the aftermath of her death, with Luce (Sarah Wynter) and Kahlo (Sarita Choudhury) bickering over how she'll be remembered artistically, and the last days Hale spent on Earth, without establishing the communication between past and present that characterizes better mysteries of this type (such as Tom Stoppard's Arcadia). In fact, it hardly feels as if we have time to get to know anyone at all.

Bairstow keeps Hale (Laura Koffman) something of a cipher, as if to underscore how her plunge from her apartment window destroyed both her and the memory of her. This does not, however, make for stirring drama: The two women attempt to sort out the emotional details of Hale's existence, while the flashbacks focus primarily on the men in her life, from doorman Frank (Michael Badalucco) to Roosevelt adviser Harry Hopkins (Mark La Mura) with a stop at big-mouthed reporter Mitch Davenport (Patrick Boll), leaving any point to the six-way fretting in its own kind of freefall.

Yet Wynter and Choudhury bring sophisticated nuance to their portrayals, cannily depicting two disparate women with the same goal: getting at the truth. Wynter's the picture of 1930s high society, all prim and controlled, even bearing rage that's wrapped in a pink bow; Choudhury connects with Kahlo's earthy side, and often wears a mysterious smile that suggests she's got a few extra tricks in reserve should anyone cross her. The scenes in with Luce and Kahlo are alone help the story find its most effective expression; the other performances are either hollow or caricaturish (or, in Badalucco's case, both), and don't support the central conflict.

As Pamela Hall replaced the production's original director during previews, this is perhaps understandable: Faced with new visions of the material so late in the process can't be helpful for anyone. Strictly in terms of staging, Hall scores, imbuing the proceedings with a dreamlike quality that's just right for the secretive nature of each of the characters. But if Hall has highlighted the uncertainty of the people trying to come to terms with a young woman's life and death, she also hasn't done enough - assuming anyone can - to make it clear what the true point of The Rise of Dorothy Hale is supposed to be.

The Rise of Dorothy Hale
Through November 18
St. Luke's Theatre, 308 West 46th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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