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Theater Review

Pleasures of 'Real Life'

Charlayne Woodard deftly glides through tales of her stage career.

July 31, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Show-business capitals--New York and L.A. in particular, however charmingly different their methods of destruction--have a way of seeking out the positive, upbeat and life-affirming among us, eating away at those attributes, and then moving on to the next victim.

It really isn't pretty what a town without pity can do.

But Charlayne Woodard, who is pure pleasure in performance, is her own municipality, with her own power supply--you could warm your hands on her smile--and, increasingly, her own collection of one-woman shows.

"In Real Life," a co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is her latest. And it is hugely enjoyable.

Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the show opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, where Woodard presented "Neat" in 1998. Her first solo, "Pretty Fire," played the Fountainhead and Odyssey theaters in 1992, born of a time when the L.A. audition grind prodded actress Woodard into action--into writing for herself, that is.

As much as you can know any performer from the version of themselves they present to an audience, Woodard is that rare bird: positive thinking incarnate, but blessed--blessedly--with a sharp eye, and a survivor's sense of mischief.

"In Real Life," which unfolds on an uncommonly beautiful John Lee Beatty setting painted a richly textured shade of red, is a simple tale. It chronicles one actress, just out of drama school, locking horns with Manhattan.

Woodard follows her high school boyfriend (now her husband) to New York. Her grandmother, one of many characters inhabited by Woodard, isn't pleased. "Never thought I'd live to see the day a grandchild of mine would jump up, and try to live, common-law, with a white fella, in broad daylight .... My Lord, that's too free."

This is the late 1970s, a time when, as Woodard says, "Broadway was popping if you were black and into musical comedy." None of that jive for Woodard, who arrives in New York with five cherished and well-honed monologues, to which she clings like a lifeboat.

An audition for "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" goes not well. "You look as though you haven't suffered one day in your entire life," the director tells her.

Enter "Ain't Misbehavin'," the Fats Waller show. Despite her dramatic predilections, Woodard auditions for the musical, successfully. Her stories about the callback, rehearsal and vocal cord-shredding run of what turned into a very large hit make for lovely backstage gossip. Watching Woodard fake her way through the dance audition is priceless, as are her subtly deadly impersonations of fellow cast members Andre De Shields and a peerlessly nasty Nell Carter.

Woodard received a Tony nomination for "Ain't Misbehavin'," along with Carter. (Carter won.) The pressure, both backstage and internal, became a load for the kid from Albany.

"In Real Life" is modest in its scope, but it illustrates a specific time and place and profession, evocatively. The supporting characters include a Rastafarian playwright friend, Winston, who devolves into a cocaine near-casualty. Members of the Woodard family, dealt with in "Pretty Fire" and "Neat," make return appearances here.

The best moment is one of the most glancing. Backstage after "Ain't Misbehavin'," Charlayne's father quietly shatters the opening night raucousness. "I couldn't stand seeing you like that," he says of her performance. "I can't stand to see any black person give it up like that, just to entertain somebody." Woodard doesn't overstress this moment, making it all the more piercing; we experience her disappointment in hearing those words, at the same time we're slipping behind her father's eyes.

"In Real Life" isn't all on that level. Some of the second-act travails are less vividly captured. Here and there, you get the feeling Woodard's dodging a gray area or two. (We don't get a feeling for what it's like to hit Manhattan, that glorious island of interpersonal distractions, with your hometown boyfriend.) She has a tendency to over-explicate a specific observation or sentiment. As a writer, in other words, Woodard's still catching up with what she does as an actress: strike two or more notes at once, dazzlingly.

"In Real Life" has been guided well and fluidly by director Sullivan. Beatty's lovely set is treated to a busy but attractive lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins. Woodard, who has never looked better--she's definitely Dorian Gray material--is framed nicely by the production.

How does any performer, whatever the medium, reconcile the pursuit of fame--the slaying of an audience--with the pursuit of a real life, and the deeper wellspring of satisfaction? Tough one. "In Real Life" doesn't pretend to answer it. Asking a question can be enough, however. Without getting grandiose or sanctimonious, Woodard's solo--one woman's look back at where she was half a lifetime ago--is positively symphonic.

*

"In Real Life," Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Thursday, Saturday and Aug. 8, 16-17, 19, 21-22, 25 and 29-30 at 8 p.m. Saturday and Aug. 12, 18 and 26 at 2:30 p.m.; Sept. 1, 4, 7, 9, 11 and 15 at 8 p.m.; Sept. 2, 5, 8, 12 and 16 at 2:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 16. $30-$44. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

*

Charlayne Woodard: Herself

Written by Charlayne Woodard. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by James Berton Harris. Lighting by Kathy A. Perkins. Sound by Chris Walker. Music by Daryl Waters. Production stage manager Mary K Klinger.

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