Written for Helen Hayes, now at TACT: Happy Birthday

Anita Loos, the charming and talented screenplay writer and novelist, was having a sort of mid life crisis in her career and in her personal life in 1946.  Ms. Loos was 58 years old at the time, and had finally left her husband, John Emerson, an abusive hypochondriac who stole money and credit from her. He dragged out their divorce settlement for years, yet he was in many respects the love of her life.

She had this conflict within her and as as one of  many artists who do, she  used abrasion to feed the many comic romances she wrote throughout her life. Her novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” published  in 1925 established her as a major force in the entertainment industry, after years of respect but little public acclaim as a writer of silent screenplays, mostly at MGM in the Golden Age of Silents in the 1920s.

Finally leaving her husband behind in California in the mid-forties, she migrated to New York where one day she lunched with Helen Hayes, her good friend.  Ms. Hayes was one of the most popular stars on Broadway, and she, too, was in a rut.  Her great triumphs had come in heavy historical plays like Victoria Regina, Harriet, Mary of Scotland and in lesser commercial plays like The Wisteria Trees and Candle in the Wind. What she wanted was a rip roaring farce, something with which she could have some fun.

That was all that Anita Loos had to hear.  Lunch was barely over before she tore into an original idea of hers:  what would happen if a timid librarian in her mid-40s were to stop in to a seedy bar on a rainy day in order to have a talk with her handsome banker, the one she has a secret crush on. Barely able to look around, let alone order a drink, she finally accepts a pink lady as a token gift and with the abundant warmth and good cheer of two elderly tarts as encouragement, she sails off on a genuine bender which takes her into the land of Oz and beyond.

In no time she is standing on the bar (and anything else in the bar she can climb on to) and singing a ditty into a microphone, a little something that Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves contributed, called – what else? – “I Haven’t Got A Worry In The World.”  This was not pure altruism on their part; they were the play’s producers in 1946, and fresh from their triumphs with Oklahoma! and Carousel, they knew that a new song by them – sung by the great Helen Hayes –  could only add fuel to the box office fire.

They were right; the song and Ms. Hayes stuck around for some 563 performances , and voilá — no more blues for herself and her pal Anita Loos.   That’s what theatre could do in them thar days.  And with a cast of 24 actors no less.

(l-r) Joe Tippett, Mary Bacon, Tom Berklund, Karen Ziemba, and Margot White (Photo courtesy of The Actors Company Theatre)

(l-r) oe Tippett, Mary Bacon, Tom Berklund, Karen Ziemba, and; Margot White
(Photo courtesy of The Actors Company Theatre)

The cast has been cut to a measly 20 for this T.A.C.T. (The Actors Company Theatre) production in the small and comfortable Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row. Under the artistic direction as well as the staging  of Scott Alan Evans, it is a rare pleasure to watch this gifted ensemble playing the piece as though it were not a piece of fluff, but a joyous romp about a lady whose entire future is re-arranged by her one afternoon in the rain in a dump in Newark, New Jersey.

The plot matters not, for it’s a story that ain’t gonna happen to no one  other than Miss Loos’ “Addie Bemis”, the little librarian mouse who turns into the swingin’ cougar who not only has the time of her life, but with regard to the banker she covets — well, you have to see for yourself and all I can tell you about that is you will have to wait until seconds before the final curtain to find out.  And that makes for pretty good playwriting.

The cast is consistently excellent, and it’s difficult to single many out because of space limitations. But Darrie Lawrence and Nora Chester bring the two aging ladies of the evening to life with great good humor. Victoria Mack gives an original twist to the dopey blonde Maude, who may not be so dopey, and Todd Gearhart as the banker of Addie’s dreams manages to turn a juvenile lead into an interesting and happy contrast who might just be  better off  with Addie than with Maude. Veteran Karen Ziemba, who has delighted us in musicals on Broadway almost every season, is here seen in a ridiculously rare appearence (at least in New York; she’s done dozens out of town) in a straight play.

As the owner of the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar, she is solid and appealing all the way through. But everyone onstage is contributive; there isn’t a bad apple up there.

I leave Mary Bacon for last. She’s been with T.A.C.T. as a company member since 2001, and has done 19 productions with them, most recently Separate Tables. Her regional and film credits confirm that she is an excellent and very useful actress whose range allows her to appear in everything from the musical Giant to Eccentricities of a Nightingale, to “Mildred Pierce” and “The Good Wife” on TV. I’m certain she will continue to have a long and fruitful career for as long as she chooses to work.

Unfortunately, this play is not a brilliant piece of writing — what it is is a crafty, well structured, inventively plotted star vehicle, and they are tricky things, these vehicles.  Plays like I Know My Love by S.N. Behrman, Without Love by Philip Barry, Dream Girl  by Elmer Rice, O Mistress Mine by Terence Rattigan, The Green Hat by Michael Arlen and so many others are constructed so the star is carried by this “vehicle”, with her (or him) at the steering wheel at all times.

When the playwright lets his star down for a moment, for an entire scene, and sometimes for an entire play, it is sometimes enough for the personality and star quality of the dazzler onstage to take mediocre material and bang home a winner on the sheer basis of his or her magical presence.

Without criticizing her performance in any way, Mary Bacon is not that kind of star. She is an actress who plays truthfully, but because in the writing. Addie Bemis can sometimes be unattractive, can on occasion come close to delusional and mean, only a  beloved star, who brings onstage with her all her previous performances and sometimes her private life as well, to cause an audience to say to itself, “Oh look, isn’t it fun watching Helen Hayes misbehave?” or “Oh look, she’s actually being rude to that girl, just because she wants her boy friend. Isn’t that cute?  Imagine, Our Helen being baaaad and low down. Wonderful!”  That can’t happen here, but it only slightly diminishes the fun we might  have had if some luminous creature with a past — say, Meryl Streep — were coaxed to play off Broadway. It would have been a swell vehicle for Shirley Booth or Judy Holliday.

I had a fine time anyway, for everything at T.A.C.T. has quality, and it’s great fun in these days of two character ninety minute one act plays to see a hearty stew of a  play with a stage full of fine actors having a good time. Who’d have thunk it — a good time in a seedy bar in Newark on a rainy evening in April?
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Happy Birthday is onstage through April 13, 2013 at The Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC . Details and tickets.

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Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:

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