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The Lady With All The Answers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Judith Ivey
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Newspaper advice columns may seem quaint today - if you have a problem, write a letter, and wait days or weeks to see it maybe printed in the paper - but there's something refreshingly honest about them that resonates down through even our more cynical, Internet-driven culture. Though the chances are good that a lot of people under 25 or so have no clue who Ann Landers (aka Eppie Lederer) was, as played by Judith Ivey in David Rambo's play The Lady With All the Answers, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, she makes a friendly case for a return to personalized journalism and the country's more trusting roots. The play itself may be pure pabulum, but it's hard to resist the homey notion of a stranger who cares about others so much she just has to solve all their life issues.

Of course, in pseudo-grand dramatic fashion, the most vexing one Landers faces in early summer of 1975, when the play is set, is about her own life: How to tell her 60 million readers, to whom she's spent two decades proselytizing the importance of maintaining marriages, that she's getting a divorce? Oh, she has a good reason - her 50-something husband fell in love with a much younger woman - but still, it doesn't look good, does it? So as she sits at her trusty old IBM Selectric typewriter to write the most difficult column of her career, she can't resist remembering - and, of course, sharing - the pain, pleasure, and purpose that made her an inspirational guiding force for so many starting in 1955. (The column ended with her death in 2002.)

A considerable portion of this involves Landers swapping between gauzy reminiscences of her own marriage and reading letters to and from her on a variety of subjects, ranging from love, marriage, and sex to toilet paper. (Which way does your roll hang?, she inquires during what will undoubtedly prove one of the season's most surreal audience-participation segments.) But that's not quite enough to fill out a show, so Rambo includes plenty of explanatory references to Landers's ongoing semi-feud with her sister, Pauline (known to millions of her own readers as Dear Abby), her Democratic politics (she campaigned against Joe McCarthy; loathed Richard Nixon; and opposed the war in Vietnam, though she traveled there to visit injured servicemen), and a few of her funnier forays into controversy (such as appearing opposite Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace on an evening talk show).

Plus, oh yes, her uniquely playful turns of phrase. "I think somebody's got a geranium in her cranium." "Blood may be thicker than water, but it boils faster." Referring to her copy: "I tell my editors it's like Eleanor Roosevelt: Forget about the looks, the content is superb." Her description of the first day her column ran: "A day that will live in intimacy." And, patting a sheaf of her correspondence: "We are in a sexual revolution, and these are dispatches from the front." Even with these enlivening additions, there's not really enough here for any actress to play in the traditional sense. The play, which has been kicking around since 2005 and has already been performed around the country (Mimi Kennedy starred in at the Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year), draws its appeal entirely from the warmth of its subject, and whatever the actress playing her can bring to the role.

Ivey, who first took on Landers last year in a production at Chicago's Northlight Theatre Company, provides as much as it seems anyone could. Her comfortably squeaky voice, her quirky way of screwing up her nose in deference to a particularly choice comic nugget that doesn't dislodge a strand of her bouffant hairdo, her rigid presentation of bone-deep aunt-next-door concern for well-being in all its forms. She even makes somber centerpieces of Landers's contrived conflictions over her own disjointed state. That can't be easy, given the lighthearted, genial nature of the rest of the play, which really feels like it just wants to be a cozy comedy for couples who've been married long enough to remember when Landers, like newspapers, truly meant something.

BJ Jones, Northlight's artistic director, has staged the show with a fitting class and grace; and Neil Patel has provided a creamily elegant set that unites antiquated charm with rigorous modernity, just as Landers herself did. No one involved can quite make you forget that The Lady With All the Answers is ultimately a dusty Valentine to bygone national innocence, more a time warp than a tribute. But this show's knack for capturing the friendly and gently voyeuristic nature of old-school advice columns makes it as pleasurable as it can be.

The Lady With All The Answers
Through November 29
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street, off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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