Good Actresses, Bad Scripts
It can't possibly be their fault, so don't blame the stars. In fact give Lucie Arnaz and Elizabeth Ashley two points for doing everything humanly possible to try making Ann and Debbie work. All their glamour, presence, acting and overacting, terrific timing, gorgeous legs and distinctive voices, together with wishing, hoping, and praying -- for all I know -- still can't make Lionel Goldstein's slight, vulgar, mindless little skit now onstage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse pass for a real play. Harmless schlock just ain't what it used to be.
Ann and Debbie are an odd couple who for years shared the love of Ann's husband Jack, now deceased. On the eve of the reading of Jack's will, the two meet at a hotel in Manhattan for a bout of that favorite Broadway pastime: truth-telling. They get drunk and drunker, alternately on Chivas and Campari; they kvetch about the room; they get ready for dinner; they go through their lives and then -- spoiler alert! -- they realize that sly old Jack probably had a third woman on the side somewhere. Maybe she'll be mentioned in the will. As Ann and Debbie go off to Jack's office to go through his papers and figure out who the floozy is, the curtain comes down. That's it.
Never mind that one could see the single plot twist coming, that the friendship between the two women is not believable for a second, that the inelegant script is peppered with solecisms such as "between Jack and I," or that the whole affair just slogs along like a bad setup for a Second Act that never comes. Not any sane person in the audience could wish for a Second Act, mind you: At 90 minutes or so without intermission, this thing feels like hours.
And also never mind the string of better scripts from the recent and not so recent past that Goldstein's alleged new play brings to mind: The Odd Couple, Any Wednesday, Plaza Suite, Sunday in New York -- hell, even Cybill Shepherd's old TV show was more fun. Poor, fabulous Elizabeth Ashley, who starred on Broadway in Neil Simon's landmark comedy Barefoot in the Park, must have seen her patience sorely tried by Ann and Debbie. But Arnaz, too, deserves better. One would have thought that, after putting the attractive Cuban-American actress through the pointless torpor of Jeffrey Hatcher's A Picasso last season, the Playhouse owed Arnaz more than this.
Ann and Debbie is a bad one-joke sitcom. Really. It began as a British Granada Television script that actually got made with Deborah Kerr and Claire Bloom, which only goes to show that stars of the caliber of Arnaz and Ashley are not alone in taking dreck if it's all that comes along. Hey, Larry Olivier made Halpern & Johnson. An actor's gotta work.
No, what hurts most about Ann and Debbie is how unembarrassed it is to be nothing but a lame punch line. How low can our standards get? The program notes for Ann and Debbie compare it to Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. The ads compare Goldstein to Sir Noel Coward. I am not making this up. Most disappointing is this: How could the same theater that just months ago gave us the world premiere of Crush the Infamous Thing, the season's wittiest and most adventurous comedy, now give us this dud?
Cast against type as bridge-and-tunnel creatures, and given little help from the script, Arnaz and Ashley manage to preserve their dignity. Ashley's sexy foghorn voice remains one of the wonders of the American theater, and Arnaz is blessed with the sort of stage presence that brings a smile to her every entrance. Robert Kalfin's stage direction is efficient and, to its credit, never humiliates the players. David Goodman's lighting design consists of turning on the lights. Ellis Tillman's costumes let each woman's considerable looks come through: A single dark pantsuit for Ashley hangs well on her shapely figure, and a colorful hang-around teddy for Arnaz dazzles. The ladies are looking good. Steve Lambert's scenic design, a vast champagne-and-gold sprawl of a hotel room, is obsessively naturalistic.
One could wonder whimsically during the performance (after fiddling in one's head with wondering whether to move Ashley's glory-days picture The Carpetbaggers to the top of the Netflix queue, or pondering if even Lucille Ball could have saved this script) whether a postmodern deconstruction of Ann and Debbie of the sort that, say, Stephen Daldry years ago brought to J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, might have yielded something interesting. But no, it probably takes a good play to bring out intelligent surprises. And intelligence, along with wit, taste, and depth, is high on the list of things that are missing here.
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