Hollywood Arms a new play by Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett, based on a memoir by Ms. Burnett. Directed by Harold Prince. Set design by Walt Spanger. Costume design by Judith Dolan. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Bob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Original music by Robert Lindsey Nassif. Cast: Linda Lavin, Michele Pawk, Frank Wood. With Donna Lynn Champlin, Sara Niemietz, Patrick Clear, Emily Graham-Handley, Nicholas King, Leslie Hendrix, Christian Kohn, Steve Makunas, and featuring the voice of Rich Little. Hollywood Arms was developed in part with the support of the Sundance Theatre Laboratory and Robert Blacker. Hollywood Arms was first presented by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on April 9, 2002. The producers wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
The character's name may be Helen, and the actress billed as playing her may be Donna Lynne Champlin, but no one in the audience is fooled. That's Carol Burnett up on the stage at the Cort Theatre. And, at the top of the second act of Hollywood Arms any pretense of the two being distinguishable has vanished, and Champlin and Burnett are one and the same.
The scene is pure theatre and pure entertainment. Helen, just home from a one-in-a-million night working at the movie theater, recounts for her family the events of the previous few hours in which she calmed the unruly audience during a projector malfunction by re-enacting the scene and song of the movie they were missing. In those few moments, Champlin's voice and manner suggest Burnett so eerily, you really feel like you are watching the first moment when one of the funniest women in American entertainment history became a star.
Champlin's wonderful, but the real Burnett's contributions to Hollywood Arms are strictly behind the scenes. She wrote the play with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton (who died of cancer earlier this year), based on her memoir, One More Time. But while Burnett is a singularly funny and captivating performer herself, something about Hollywood Arms - despite its grounding in reality, presenting the story of her dysfunctional family - doesn't ring true.
Could it be as simple as Burnett's own presentation of a wacky family in the sketches on The Carol Burnett Show (the ones that became the basis for the Mama's Family TV series) have indelibly planted in our minds images that we can't help project onto the characters onstage? Their influence is keenly felt in Hollywood Arms - Helen's grandmother, Nanny (Linda Lavin), bears an uncanny resemblance to Vicki Lawrence's character from television, curly hair and all. And Michele Pawk's Louise is frequently a dead ringer for Eunice, the bombastic daughter Burnett portrayed to comic perfection.
But the more serious problem is that the show has a tendency to play as little more than a series of skits, such as might have been found on Burnett's variety show. Some are comic, some are serious, but nearly all feel incomplete, different pieces of a puzzle that never come together to form a complete picture. More than once, when a scene appears ready to explode into powerful drama, the lights fade out, preventing the show from establishing a real dramatic connection with the audience.
Still, a number of the elements are interesting; the show may be disconnected, but it's never boring. Nanny spends most of the first act trying to get Louise to marry the steady and secure yet unexciting Bill (Patrick Clear), Helen's parents battle with alcoholism throughout most of the show, the continuing power struggle between Nanny and Louise for Helen's affections all contain moments of serene clarity and frequently enjoyable (if seldom outright hilarious) humor. What is evident is that Burnett and Hamilton had a strong idea of what they were writing, and the plot is never hard to follow even when the transitions are not always as effective as they could be. All the pieces are there, though it's odd that they weren't put together more effectively, given the top-notch pedigree of the show's director, Harold Prince.
Though his staging of the work is generally fine (with the primary exception of some distracting recitation of dialogue over the theater's sound system), the almost sloppy quality of much of the script suggests that Prince's hand was not as firm as it could (or should) have been. This can be felt in the physical production as well. Walt Spanger's set and Howell Binkley's lights are fine, but they never get much more exciting than when illuminating the Hollywoodland sign, lording over the Hollywood Arms Hotel (where the bulk of the play's action takes place) like a spiritual watchdog.
What the show gets almost completely right is its casting - there's a great group of actors onstage. Champlin stands out - portraying Burnett, she pretty much has to - but Lavin is endearingly crotchety and Pawk makes a convincing journey from ebullient hope to drunken despair. Portraying Helen in her early years, Sara Niemietz is a pint-sized powerhouse, with a winning personality and the booming voice to match. Clear and Frank Wood, as Louise's father, are both affecting as the men in these womens' lives. Most of the other performers are fine in their smaller roles, but special mention must be made of Nicolas King, overacting here only slightly less painfully than in A Thousand Clowns last season (though, thankfully, here he has much less to do).
So, while the show isn't completely unfulfilling, it stands as an unfortunately disappointing tribute to Burnett. The work for which she'll truly be remembered has been preserved for posterity elsewhere, recording a comic performing genius who can hold an audience spellbound in the palm of her hand. That's the Burnett on display when Champlin is belting out "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" for all she's worth, but it's a shame she doesn't appear in Hollywood Arms more often.