A Picasso and
The Secret Letters of Jackie and Marilyn

Mark Zeisler and Rebecca Harris
A pair of "what if" plays, featuring famous people in fictional situations, are on the boards in Pittsburgh this month. Both are interesting ventures featuring very good performances. The City Theatre's A Picasso posits a secret Paris meeting between Pablo Picasso and a representative of Germany's Ministry of Culture, and the Public Theatre offers a take on how a personal relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Jacquelyn Bouvier Kennedy may have played out.

Once again, the City returns to the work of Jeffrey Hatcher. And, why not? Previous productions of his plays (in particular, Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright, written with Eric Simonson; Mercy of a Storm, and Compleat Female Stage Beauty) have proved successful. Billed as a "two-character drama," the one-act A Picasso has a lot of humor - not a surprise for a Hatcher play. The setting is 1941 Paris, and Picasso has been summoned to a basement vault and asked to authenticate three portraits suspected to be his work for Miss Fischer, an art expert and German government worker. Picasso was around 60 years old at this time. He spent the war years in Paris, unable to show his work but maintaining his stance of pacifism. He continued to work surreptitiously; his painting of the 1937 German bombing of Gernika, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War was done during this time, and it figures in this play, in a Hatcher twist.

As Miss Fischer, Rebecca Harris is at first all steely determination. But the cat and mouse banter between Fischer and Picasso, and the shared love for art, peel away her official persona in due time. Harris is excellent in this role. Outfitted perfectly by Angela M. Vesco (costume design) and Elsen Associates (wig design), she carries herself most believably as a conservative Ministry of Culture representative whose passions run very deep. Mark Zeisler is forceful as Pablo Picasso, with his passions much closer to the surface. The two actors are a good match for the piece, with a chemistry that is present but not overt.

Scenic Design by Fred Kinney, lighting by Jim French and sound by Elizabeth Atkinson contribute significantly to the period atmosphere. A Picasso is an interesting and plausible "what if."

A Picasso continues through December 17 a the City Theatre. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.

Gretchen Egolf and Heather Tom
Whereas the meeting in A Picasso could have happened without really affecting history, the premise in The Secret Letters of Jackie and Marilyn is somewhat different, as, if it had really taken place, this relationship would change what we know of the impetuous for some historical events. Based on Wendy Leigh's book, the play by Mark Hampton and Michael Sharp is presented essentially as the two title characters vocalizing the content of letters they wrote to each other from the time preceding the marriage of Jackie and John Kennedy, up to the death of Monroe in 1962. Through the letters, they discuss significant events in each others' lives, with very personal details, and we occasionally see them interact directly at a few times when their lives intersect. We're given a very ample view of possible specifics of the oft rumored relationship between Monroe and JFK. Though at times some fictionalized coincidences don't ring true (imagine Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe giving each other advice), and personality traits are exaggerated, it's an interesting trip along a well known timeline of American culture.

Because the look and sound of both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy are so well know to us, it is very fortunate that the actresses here are not required to provide exact replicas of the icons. As Monroe, Heather Tom speaks without the breathy quality of Monroe's voice, but with a tone and delivery that is similar. Tom is a beautiful woman, slimmer than Monroe, yet curvy; she emanates the physicality of Monroe very effectively. Gretchen Egolf, also lovely and slim, uses carriage and vocal intonation to forge her character as well. Since both actresses are providing a "backstage" representation of the two women, softening of the famous edges is appropriate. All in all, these are two superb performances, thanks to the actresses and to the direction of Leonard Foglia. It is fascinating to watch them, particularly when the characters interact directly.

Providing background and humor is Carole Shelley as Marilyn's stylist, Patty. Shelley is extremely effective at connecting with the audience, drawing us in as Patty provides some connecting details in the story. She also provides a good bit of "color" as she speaks in the present time, which is the 44th anniversary of Monroe's death. However, an unfortunate directing choice - having Shelley rely heavily on a book of "notes" to "jog" Patty's memory as she speaks - makes some moments awkward. A glance at the book now and then would suffice. Shelley as Patty is a very natural conversationalist and adds a light tone to what is often a bit heavy-going in the lives of Jackie and Marilyn. It would be great if she were allowed to speak in a more candid manner.

Though Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe may seem like unlikely buddies, a most stunning pairing takes place between Michael McGarty's set design and David C. Woolard's costuming. The set, in blacks, white and grays, consists of a series of chrome-trimmed see-through panels across the back, which slide and tilt open for entrances, exits, and brief scenes, and simple pieces of furniture (including a round bed for Monroe in the second act). The costumes are 1950s-60s dresses and suits in fabrics of solid black or white and mixed black and white patterns. They fit perfectly, are accessorized very well, and add to the characterizations as well as the period atmosphere. The exceptions to the gray scale theme are a bright pink hatbox, in which Monroe kept the letters, sitting upstage center in a pink spotlight, and the red dress Jackie wore during the 1962 televised tour of the restore White House. The visuals in this production are simply superb, from the cast to the set, costumes and lighting (by Howell Binkley).

The world premiere of The Secret Letters of Jackie and Marilyn continues through December 10 at the O'Reilly Theatre for Pittsburgh Public Theatre. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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