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Slack embrace in 'Hollywood Arms'

November 01, 2002|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK — If talent credits were drama, "Hollywood Arms" would run forever. Just look at the program for Carol Burnett's memory play, which opened at the Cort Theatre last night after a reportedly promising start at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

First there is the pedigreed authenticity of the project, based on the early chunk of the multitalented Burnett's 1986 memories and coauthored by her daughter Carrie Hamilton, who at age 38 died of cancer, just four months before the Chicago premiere. The play is directed and co-produced by no less an alchemist than Harold Prince. What's more, Broadway favorite Linda Lavin plays the crotchety, possessive, quirky old grandmother, called Nanny, and is never far from high-density, center-stage, off-center theatrics.

Alas, all the king's horses -- or at least all the Prince resources -- are unable to find the elastic to pull together this slack, elongated and overpopulated evening of show-biz family reminiscence. We never doubt that Burnett's early years in a cheap Hollywood rooming house were filled with eccentric, troubled, selfish and caring people with enough personal demons to shape a lifetime of stories. But there is a difference between telling a good story and writing a good play. And for all the dauntingly meticulous detail in this mostly autobiographical work, it remains a labor of love with too much of the labor showing.

Burnett's harrowing recollections are strangely flat -- jarred by the occasional now-I'm-going-to-tell-you-a-joke device, a farcical cops-and-bookie scene that might have been dragged in from an old-fashioned Broadway comedy or mama-daughter jealousies that play more than a little like a low-rent "Gypsy."

The program identifies the time span from 1941 to 1951, but the second act introduces a snotty seventh-grade daughter -- the entirely winning Emily Graham-Handley -- who was a mere unexpected baby before intermission. The neighbor's precocious little boy (Nicolas King) does a lot of major showing off in the first half but isn't even mentioned in the second act, and his mother -- the snappy Leslie Hendrix -- is expected to wear the same Mexican peasant blouse through the years.

If we seem to be digressing from the main conflict, you've got the picture. Lots of trees, fuzzy forest. Things begin in standard memory-play mode. Older Helen (Burnett chose not to call her Carol) introduces us to the Hollywood sign that hovers over Walt Spangler's dreamlike, functional rooming house set. But her next sentence pulls us to her earlier memory, before Young Helen (Sara Niemietz) and Nanny left Texas to join Helen's mother, Louise, as she pursues her "pipe dream" of writing celebrity interviews.

Lavin walks with the widespread stance that actresses assume when pretending to be old. Lavin's Nanny is busy enough, thank you, what with her making snorty faces, cracking flatulence jokes in her buzzy, twangy voice, having psychogenic "spells" and popping phenobarbital, the era's female drug of choice.

Michele Pawk makes us care a lot about Louise, a vibrant woman with ambitions that exceeded her life's options, and Frank Wood is poignant as ever as her first husband, Helen's sweet loser of a father, who abandoned them for the bottle and the TB sanitarium.

The star turn comes, finally, when Donna Lynne Champlin, as the sturdy, sensible Older Helen, shows the family how she stepped out of her usherette job and entertained the movie audience when the projector broke by playing all the roles in the film. It is a stirring moment, but it comes late in the evening. Before Helen gets to New York and success, her mother warns, "The world isn't kind to people like us. They hate originals."

Perhaps, but that is not the problem here.


Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday.



'Hollywood Arms'

Where: Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York

Contact: (800) 432-7250

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