Moment of Truth

Dorothy Parker departs from the formula — once

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click to enlarge CATWOMAN: Carolyn Michel plays Dorothy Parker - with as much catty complexity as the script allows. - BETSY REED
BETSY REED
CATWOMAN: Carolyn Michel plays Dorothy Parker with as much catty complexity as the script allows.

There's a moment, late in Act One of Dororthy Parker ... One Foot in Scarsdale, when the play suddenly matters, when it hurtles past being formulaic and predictable and becomes painfully immediate. The subject is the abortion Parker had when she discovered that one of her many lovers had impregnated her. She describes the doctor who performed the operation: He was wearing a tuxedo in preparation for attending a "cafe society" party, and he carried out the procedure with a lit cigarette dangling from his lip. When the cigarette had accumulated a half-inch of ash, the ordeal was over. The doctor put away his instruments, advised the dazed Parker to rest for a half-hour and to lock the door on the way out. Then he was gone, leaving Parker alone with her emotions. Why is this segment so effective? Because throughout its retelling, we go beyond the world of famous witticisms and celebrated friendships to a private experience, one that's palpably human, recognizable, raw. The Dorothy Parker we discover in the course of this story is a genuine human being, not just a fountain of aphorisms, wisecracks and celebrity gossip.

Not that wisecracks and gossip are uninteresting; they keep us pretty much attentive for the two hours of Jack Fournier's play. But when Parker tells us the story of her abortion, something powerful happens: We suddenly recognize her as one of us, a fellow human.

This is why we come to the theater — for a view of our condition, whether it's afforded us by Parker or Antigone or Mother Courage — and its worth hours of chitchat about Hemingway and Harold Ross.

It's also a nice departure from the formula of celebrity monologues as we've come to know them from too much exposure over the years. What's that formula? Well, basically, it's autobiography-by-confession. Your famous personage comes to the edge of the stage and addresses us as friends. She chatters a bit about this and that, but that's just the warm-up. What's coming is her life story, told more or less chronologically, and including all the inevitable highlights. Successes are there, but failures are de rigueur; joys are permitted, but sorrows make us feel trusted. Names are dropped left and right, tales are told out of school, but genuinely deep thoughts are kept safely out of the equation. The point is People magazine, not Dostoyevsky. As we file out of the theater, we feel that we've had a nice brush-up on Dorothy Parker (or Diana Vreeland or Truman Capote) but we certainly don't feel that we've been challenged or provoked.

And sure enough, Dorothy Parker ... pretty much covers the bases. When we first see Parker, it's 1967 and she's just died, presumably a suicide. The afterlife, as designed by Marcella Beckwith, is furnished with the famous Algonquin Round Table and with a desk on which sit an old telephone, a Royal typewriter and a liquor bottle. The name-dropping begins immediately: "If this is hell, at least I'll have Ernest Hemingway for company." An inventory of the props includes "Veronal, Valium, vodka, single-edged razor blades — all of my favorite things."

Then comes the autobiography: She tells us that she was born in 1893 as Dorothy Rothschild. Her mother died when she was 5, and her father sent her — though she was Jewish — to a convent school. She wrote sassy poems there (was St. Francis Assisi or was he merely prissy?), and was finally expelled. So she was sent to a private school in Morristown, N.J., where she was the class wit. She left before graduating, and set out to publish a thin volume of poetry (she wanted to be Edna St. Vincent "Malaise").

She finally sold her first poem in 1916, and managed to get a job as a caption writer for Vogue. Eventually she was invited to join the staff of Vanity Fair, where Robert Benchley was managing editor, and where she was made drama critic. She married Edwin Parker, whose mother Hortense was no fun at all ("What makes a Hortense? Why, horticulture!").

Meetings around the Round Table with Benchley, Robert Sherwood and eventually Alexander Woolcott and Franklin Pierce Adams ultimately became celebrated, but her relationship with Benchley broke up over political matters. Her first marriage also broke up, but a brief affair with Hemingway followed ("a wonderfully passionate and tender lover") and eventually another marriage. She went out to Hollywood, made $5,200 a week, wrote A Star is Born, was accused of being a communist, made several suicide attempts (she wanted, she says, for her father to feel sorry for her), and finally passed away in 1967. At the end, she's thinking about Hemingway again, particularly his penchant for cruel fun.

Is the story interesting? Sure, in its way. But for all the facts, we're still, at the end, missing the inner person. Not that the problem is Carolyn Michel's acting. No, Michel is a pro, and her Parker is as complicated as Fournier's script will allow her to be. She's coy and self-delighted and catty where appropriate, pained by the things that didn't work out, serious when it's necessary and joyous when it's possible. In fact, there's only one area in which Michel's not convincing, and that's in showing us the depressive side of Parker, a side that she often talks about but that remains more a rumor than a visible fact.

Steve Ramay's fine direction has Michel using most of the small Gompertz stage, and Bruce Price's lighting is pivotal in changing the mood from moment to moment. This is a solid production, up to Florida Studio Theatre's usual high standards.

But to be totally honest, by the middle of Act Two, my mind was wandering. By then it was clear that all I'd be getting for the price of admission were the facts, the same facts I could find in the library or on the Internet. And I come to the theater for something much deeper. Call it human truth, the same truth that I noted in that short segment about Parker's abortion.

There's not a lot of that sort of truth in this production.

So, entertaining as it is, this Dorothy Parker is still a disappointment.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com.

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