Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Shot Who?"

"Our Leading Lady" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, April 25, 2007

Charles Busch's latest offering, "Our Leading Lady" tells the presumably fictional back story of Laura Keen, a 19th century actress-manager, whose production of "Our American Cousin" was playing the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre.

I couldn't help thinking that this would be great fodder for a musical. Mr. Busch has assembled the stock characters one might have found in the acting company of Ford's Theatre at the time, the dotty older actress, the leading man with a drinking problem, the character actor of questionable sexual orientation married to a former ingenue, etc.

(Spoiler Alert) In the first act, he has created a period melodrama, telling the story of how Ms. Keen has left New York after her acting company there went under. She is now touring her production of "Our American Cousin" across the country, playing the lead and supported by local actors at each stop. On this stop, she is also in secret negotiations to take over the running of Ford's Theatre and staff it with members from her New York company. Needless to say, the local actors are suspicious and unhappy. Egos run from testy to maniacal. When Laura learns that the President has decided not to attend her play, she writes to him immediately, and is able to change his mind. We all know what happens next.

Things take a dark shift in the second act. Laura's efforts of kindness toward her long-time dresser/maid, Wu-Chan (now revealed as a once-runaway slave) are not received as she would have expected. The relationship, founded on a mutual disregard and denial for what was obvious in order to serve each one's purposes, struggles through an attempted switch in roles of care giver and receiver. Wu Chan wants to find her brother and claim six acres promised to her by her former owner. Laura sees this as unlikely, if not impossible, given the war and despite emancipation, begging Wu Chan to stay and travel with her to her next tour stop in Ohio. Laura and the cast are questioned by the authorities about possible involvement with Mr. Booth's actions, since several company members might have a motive to help the assassination plot. The former ingenue is held overnight because of her Southern family ties and previous public statements against the war.

All is resolved, ever-so-theatrically, in a grand monologue delivered by Laura which thoroughly impresses the company, but only befuddles the investigator who writes them all off as not mentally stable enough to formulate, let alone participate in the assassination. Laura's plan to take over the theatre falls through, and her tour is cancelled.

As Laura Keen, Kate Mulgrew gives her best William Shatner version of a pompous and self-important actor. Maxwell Caulfield, as the aging leading man with a teeny-tiny drinking problem is just about unintelligible, but still quite handsome. As the dotty Mrs. Bentley, Barbara Byrne is steadfast and probably the most consistent performer in this production.

Santo Loquasto's versatile set uses a rotating proscenium arch, turning periodically as the scenes shift. In the second act, the proscenium is tilted against the back wall, a metaphor for the collapse in the aftermath of the assassination. Brian McDevitt's lighting gives the appropriate period feel to the proceedings. Jane Greenwood's period costumes were spot on.

Mr. Busch has written some very nice and clever moments into his script. Late in the first act, while railing against the Booths for prior offenses to her career (which may or may not have led to the failure of her New York company) she says, "At least there's nothing the Booths can do to me now." There are plenty of other laughs as well, but the evening still feels a bit unsatisfying. Is the play meant to be just a broad comedy with some dark moments? Is it meant as a commentary on the artificiality of politics? Is it meant to comment on how women survived in the 19th Century? We get these questions, but the answers remain unclear.

(Star-watch: Conrad John Schuck in the audience - I saw a fellow audience member speak to him as someone recognizable but unidentified.)

No comments: