In answer to the question of why the slated-for-Broadway production of James Kirkwood’s 1986 LEGENDS, about two aging screen divas who hate each others’ guts but are forced to appear in a play together, never made it into Gotham – it sucked big time, in every way a “steaming turd,” to paraphrase one of the actual lines from the play.
Mary Martin, James Kirkwood and Carol Channing in 1986
Tonight, it was performed at Town Hall as a benefit for the charity Friends In Deed, by Charles Busch and Lypsinka, taking roles originated by Carol Channing and Mary Martin, who did everything they could – including pointedly poke fun at it – to put it over. (Even Kirkwood wrote a memoir of his disastrous experience, DIARY OF A MAD PLAYWRIGHT – a must in libraries of gay men over 40 – describing how Mary Martin was then unable to remember her lines and had to wear a special earpiece which fed them to her. Sometimes this device would cross frequencies with local taxi dispatches, only addling the poor dear even more.) DYNASTY gorgons Joan Collins and Linda Evans starred in a recent revival, as well, which had die-hard Manhattan queens pilgrimaging to Philly to catch the fur flying.
The packed top-dollar Town Hall audience – which was like a preview of everyone you’ll see on Fire Island in three months – roared its approval over all the campy schtick but there was no denying the sow’s ear which lay beneath the attempted silkof the stars’ efforts, not to mention their fabulously glamorous gowns, by talented Fabio Toblini. Lypsinka’s elegant purple chiffon afternoon frock was the most beautiful stage costume I’ve seen in a while, like something Orry-Kelly would have whipped up for Kay Francis in her Warners heyday. The Lyp (aka John Epperson) freely adapted the play, updating the 1986 material with references to Rachel Ray and circuit party drug-laden lines like “Axel, bring me the Tina!,” and God knows this work needed all the help it could get. When low camp is as low, unfunny, forced, misogynistic and just downright unredeemably vulgar as something like this is, it makes one almost ashamed to be gay by association. Sample line, cribbed from SUNSET BOULEVARD: “She didn’t need a face: she had feces then!” There’s a lengthy, shamelessly gratuitous passage involving a male stripper (done to a slick fare-thee-well tonight by charming Dashaun Young), and one can just shuddersomely imagine how this played in the original production, with some hunk thrusting his groin in an aged Mary Martin’s face (o, the non-hilarity!).
Busch did score one undeniably hilarious moment with his delivery of a childhood reminiscence: “My mother discovered me looking at my asshole in a mirror.” (Such is what constituted a bon mot for Kirkwood who, also, it should be mentioned, wrote the book for A CHORUS LINE in happier days.) Lypsinka got a little of her own back by strutting her familiar genius stuff in a rendition of a Cole Porter number, replete with Dolores Gray flourishes. (There should have been more of these to leaven the dead weight of Kirkwood’s writing.) NY1 journalist Roma Torre was on hand to fill in a little history about the play and mentioned the fact that Kirkwood based some of the bad diva behavior on his mother screen actress, Lila Lee. If this is true, then MOMMIE DEAREST reads like a Valentine by comparison.
Lila Lee (1901-73), star of THE UNHOLY THREE, BLOOD AND SAND and Frank Capra’s FLIGHT
Fran Leibowitz did her trademark Sahara-dry stuff as the narrator, observing that this was the play’s official NY premiere, although done as a reading with scripts in hand like the Encores! series, making it the “premiere of an encore.” Bryan Batt had a lengthy tour-de-force impersonating as an agent hallucinating under the influence of hashish-laced brownies, which silly gimmick provided the basic impetus of Act II (o, Kirkwood!)
Whoopi Goldberg was slated to appear as a maid, named Aretha (o, Kirkwood!), but, as a game Christine Ebersole (was she pulled out of the audience – which included Raul Esparza and Director Joel Schumacher – to do this?) explained, illness prevented her from appearing. “What?!” shrieked one hysterical queen in the audience, eliciting laughter. It was later observed that Goldberg must have indeed been ill, as she was not on THE VIEW this morning, but, hey, maybe she just took a full day off, especially after realizing just how long she’d have to be onstage performing antics which could only be described by one word: “minstrel” – Kirkwood’s monumentally unseemly idea of entitled rich white-boy humor (and possibly the biggest reason for the play’s out-of-town failure) – with her singing “Camptown Races” at one point and sputing lines like “I’m wearing Eau de Doodahday.” This would be no easy, fun little cameo for charity a la her WEST SIDE STORY moment for BROADWAY BACKWARDS’ benefit a few weeks ago. At any rate, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone who had shelled big bucks out expecting to see her, along with all the staunch Busch/Lypsinka devotees, and also extraordinary admiration for Lisa Estridge, the actress who sportingly stepped in to replace her, and did a fine job, considering the utter drek she had to deal with. LEGENDS director Mark Waldrop had worked with her in a 5th Avenue Theater production of INTO THE WOODS a few years ago in Seattle, and wisely brought her in to stand in for Goldberg (always intensely scheduled) for early readings and rehearsals.
Liz McCarthy and Lisa Estridge in JUNIE B. JONES, Seattle Children’s Theater (photo by Chris Bennion)
Estridge has just relocated to NYC, so let’s join the gracious Christine Ebersole in welcoming her to the Apple. Ebersole encouraged the audience to give up the love for her, because who knows, other understudies have become overnight stars, too, “like Shirley Maclaine!” Yeah, but Maclaine was in THE PAJAMA GAME, not a one-night benefit with major drag queen competish – whatever, we wish trouper extraordinaire Estridge the very best.