Ann Landers at American Stage: Good advice

A beautifully performed one-woman show recalls an era when an advice columnist could shock the world.

Once upon a time, the raciest part of the morning newspaper was Ann Landers' advice column, with its whiff of a world of hurt behind closed doors. Long before Watergate and Weinergate, before Monica Lewinsky's stained dress and Michael Jackson's sleepovers, readers of the daily rag could open to "Dear Ann Landers" and find beastly behavior, kinky sex, adultery, effrontery, marriages on the rocks and teenage fornication.

Ann's responses were interesting too, of course. But the real attractions were her correspondents: Who would have guessed that Americans, regular Americans, were oh so... way-out?

Now there's a play about the woman who fielded all these tantalizing inquiries, and it's a likable, intelligent work, perfectly acted by the prodigiously talented Carolyn Michel, and gently accepting in its view of both Landers and her public. It's called Ann Landers: The Lady With All The Answers, and, ironically enough, it's built around the one problem for which Landers didn't have an answer: her husband's decision, after 35 years of marriage, to leave her for a younger woman. As the onstage Landers tries to compose the confession to her readers that she feels obliged to make, she interrupts herself long enough to tell us about some of her favorite letters and the American world they suggest.

The missives are of all kinds. There's a woman who wonders if it's okay to clean house in the nude, and another who's worried because her husband dresses as Tarzan whenever guests come to call. There's the writer who's searching for guidance on how to deploy toilet paper — overhand or underhand — and the letter from a man who's fallen in love with his pony. Some of the letters are deadly serious — like the one from a gay teenager who's thinking about suicide (and whom she comforts and encourages) — and Landers admits there are others from readers who followed her advice and nearly wrecked their lives in the process.

Not all of Landers' monologue (written by David Rambo) is about these letters, however. There's also some autobiography, some discussion of her twin sister "Popo" (the Abby of "Dear Abby"), and a few phone calls apparently from her daughter Margo. Landers makes contact with the audience as she asks who's been married longest (over 60 years won at the performance I attended), and who places the toilet paper under- or overhand. She remembers the kick of seeing her face on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and she reasons that adolescent sex wasn't much of a problem in her teenaged years — during the Depression — first, because there was no pill, and next, because no boy could afford a car. She talks of invitations to the Playboy mansion and a TV talk show on which she appeared with Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat. She's moved to tears when she speaks of her visit to Vietnam during the war. At the request of the soldiers she met there, she made 2,500 phone calls to loved ones in the States.

Carolyn Michel, who plays Landers, is a longtime member of the Asolo Rep company in Sarasota, and I can't remember all the times I've had the pleasure of reviewing her. In Ann Landers she's in top form: every laugh, every tear, every detail in her expressive face seems to come genuinely from the advice columnist at a particularly difficult moment in her life. As directed by Howard Millman (her real-life husband), Michel so commands the audience, we can almost forget that Rambo's text offers few surprises. This play is written on the level of an Ann Landers column, and that's its strength and its failing. Certainly there's no room here for Freud or Jung or that bunch. Certainly there's no suggestion that class or race are also American issues.

But the show's a pleaser, nonetheless. See it for nostalgia's sake — or to be introduced to the wildest thing the morning paper used to offer. Americans, it seems, have always had their crazy side. Ann Landers, at the very least, kept that fact in the news.

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