Seldom has a top-billed star of a play spent less time on stage than does Billy Dee Williams in "If These Hips Could Talk," at the Wiltern.
I didn't time his appearances, but it felt as if they totaled about 15 minutes out of a show that lasts almost three hours.
His raffish looks and voice still have their appeal, and his name is surely expected to lure middle-aged women who still think of Williams as the hottest man in Hollywood. But the use of him in this way is hypocritical on the part of producer Angela Barrow-Dunlap.
The central conflict in the play's narrative is the battle over whether a television talk show, hosted by four black women, should appeal to the audience's prurient interests instead of its spiritual needs.
Not surprisingly -- considering that the production is described as "inspirational" on the program cover -- the play's answer to this question is to go with God. But then what is the point of Williams' casting, if not to spice up the marketability of "If These Hips Could Talk"?
It's not as if Williams' character, who is a lecherous and ratings-hungry TV executive, becomes part of the play's spiritual message in the final scene. That's when the four leading women -- having learned a lesson -- engage in an explosion of full-throttle gospel belting and are joined by Williams' previously slimy white underling (Brian Hurst), who apparently has also seen the light. Williams, however, doesn't show up again until he emerges to take the final curtain call.
Earlier in the evening, each of the four women gets to suffer with gusto in her own special soapy niche.
The careerist host and driving force behind the show (Margaret Bell) has a husband (Anthony Grant) who resents her inattention to him and the household. Grant pulls off an audacious scene in which he, even more than Williams, plays up his sex symbol status as he pleads for understanding -- only to lose much of his rapidly gathering sympathy when he slaps his wife.
He finally turns to the arms of his wife's lonely co-host, Alexis (TondaLaya).
Another co-host, the overweight Faye (Kellie Evans), is driven almost to suicide by her lack of a man, but God (an uncredited voice-over) heals her.
Robin Givens plays the scheming usurper to the talk show throne, who plans to personally sex up the show, until she is struck by a serious illness.
Director Dorothea Sharon keeps the show moving, despite the excesses of the script, which is credited to five "contributing writers."
Comic Tony T. Roberts gets a few laughs as the TV show's stage manager and also as the show's designated Jerry Springer, in a sequence in which he asks audience members to discuss whether they had ever caught their men cheating.
Of course in a real TV show, the women hosts themselves would interrogate the audience. But "Hips" doesn't exactly keep it real.
'If These Hips Could Talk'
Where: Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Tonight-Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.; Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Contact: (213) 380-5005 and
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Where: Riverside Municipal Auditorium, 3485 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Contact: (909) 788-3944