Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, PlayhouseSquare

One-person shows built around impressions of famous people (such as Mark Twain, Harry Truman, the list goes on) are always popular entertainments. After all, we like to get a little peek into the real lives of celebrities who have a body of work we respect and cherish—and no, Charlie Sheen, we’re not talking about you.

These elements would seem to be aligned perfectly for a solo riff on Lucille Ball, the much-adored movie and TV comedy queen of comedy from the 1930s to the 80s. Unfortunately, the script for An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a hot mess. As co-written by the performer Suzanne LaRusch and Lucy’s daughter (and the play’s director) Lucie Arnaz, this monologue brings a whole new meaning to the term tepid.

It’s as if Reader’s Digest and the AARP got together to write a show, and then had it buffed to rose-tinted shine by Ned Flanders.

It starts out with a labored introduction that tries to establish that the performer will not be recreating Lucy’s famous bits—the chocolate candy assembly line, the Vitametavegamin schtick, etc. Then, once “Lucy” takes the stage, she actually does do versions of those skits.

Awkwardly arranged as a fake Q&A with the audience (all the questions are pre-recorded by actors, no questions are taken from live patrons), the show lumbers from one anecdote to another, assisted occasionally by still photos and home movies. While certain Lucy devotees may appreciate LaRusch’s physical similarity to the older Lucy, and her ability to replicate a couple of the star’s mannerisms, the gap between the two performers is enormous.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than when a short clip of the real Lucy doing the Vitametavegamin pitch is shown. Lucille Ball was a comic genius, which is shown as she gets hammered, first sipping a spoonful and then tipping the bottle and draining the inebriating concoction.

For some reason, the script performed by LaRusch focuses on the actual bad taste of the elixir, with “Lucy” making the extraordinary comment that she was glad it tasted awful so she didn’t have to act(!). Even if the real Lucy did say that at some time, it totally misses the point, as does the attempt to teach the audience how to correctly pronounce the V-word. The fun, as the real Lucy knew, was in woozily mispronouncing that jumble of letters.

At another moment, “Lucy” talks about the importance to an actor of learning pantomime, then does a long and fairly boring mime of sewing up a rip in a pair of slacks (the real Lucy could have made this hilarious). At another juncture, LaRusch even stuffs her mouth with chocolate candies, echoing that famous episode, but manages to do it in a perfunctory and remarkably unfunny way since there’s no context.

Topics not touched on are Lucy’s stormy relationship with husband Desi Arnaz (all we hear is that he was “the love of her life”), her brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 50s, and any bumps or failures in her long career.

It’s understandable that Lucie Arnaz would want to paint her mom and dad in the most glowing colors, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting production. Especially when the sole performer is far less talented than the woman she is portraying. If you love Lucy, look up the real thing on You Tube.

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking

Through April 17 at the 14th Street Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 216-241-6000

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