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The thing you need to know about Legends!, before you go ponying up that $57 for a Studio Theatre seat, is that it is—wait while I find precisely the right words—a goddamn awful play. I mean awful. The jokes are limp, the stakes low, the art not remotely high. (Though the characters certainly are, courtesy of a plate of hash brownies, for most of what used to be the second act.)
Yet you might still wanna think about that ticket—because the point of Legends! is the casting of the catfighting ladies at its center, and with John Epperson’s larger-than-life Lypsinka as part of the equation, there’s a certain unhinged something going on at Studio. It’s not brilliant, at least not yet—but by taking a travesty and staging it en travesti, Studio has put an ironic frame around all the bad and made it…well, less bad.
The story, though I promise you don’t really care, involves a pair of aging film divas—Sylvia Glenn, a coarse, much-married broad in the ball-busting Joan Crawford mold, and Leatrice Monsee, a fine lady known for playing nuns onscreen and acting like one off-—and the low-rent theatrical producer who’s trying to get them to star in his new play. The ladies loathe each other of old, so of course the impoverished Sylvia doesn’t want Leatrice figuring out that she needs the gig; that’s why, after a brief introductory bit involving that producer (Tom Story) and a long-shot pitch to Brad Pitt, whose name he hopes will coax a “yes” from the lips of La Monsee (Epperson), we find the canny Sylvia (James Lecesne, wearing Joan Collins’ mid-’80s bouffant) crashing a friend’s grand Upper East Side apartment. She’s gonna pretend the place is hers, y’see, and negotiate from a position of strength. The fact that the housekeeper (an exceedingly game Roz White) has got the place tricked out for bachelorette party for that very evening? Well, that bit of setup will pay off in a conspicuously naked if moderately strenuous way.
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Now, it’s important to know that Legends! has a legend, at least among connoisseurs of theatrical disaster. Originally staged with musical-theater legends Carol Channing (the loudmouth) and Mary Martin (the sweetheart), it met with such calamities on the road that playwright James Kirkwood felt moved to write a gruesome post-mortem memoir. Among the anecdotes he retailed in 1989’s Diary of a Mad Playwrightis one in which an aging Martin, who’d been struggling to remember her lines, got more flustered still when the wireless earpiece that was feeding her dialogue started picking up signals from a taxi dispatcher instead. Maybe it’s the fact that this happened right here in downtown D.C., at the National Theatre, that inspired Studio to revisit the property. Or maybe it’s that producers have long managed to make money with the show—its last trip through town was barely three-and-a half years ago, with Dynasty veterans Linda Evans and, yes, Joan Collins in the leads—despite its epic lameness.
Whatever the case, it’s probably a good thing that Epperson—who as the pencil-browed, pencil-thin Lypsinka has made a career out of paying caustically inspired homage to exactly the sort of divas Legends! sends up, and who’s apparently been intrigued by the play for years—has had a whack at the script: At roughly 90 minutes, peppered with up-to-the-minute cracks about tabloid personalities and pop-culture events, his one-act version still feels a touch thin, but at least it moves. And it comments. Boy, does it ever comment. Which can be interesting in a let’s-think-about-what-makes-an-entertainment sort of way.
Where it breaks down a bit is in the execution. Lypsinka’s Leatrice is a grand thing, always playing to the balcony—but with no balcony in the Metheny Theater, some of the big showbizzy gestures—and even some of those knowing winks at the material—seem pitched over the audience’s heads. And last Sunday, at least, there was an uncomfortable, almost uncertain vibe to the central performances: The pickups weren’t natural, and too often the cast seemed to be expecting a laugh where none came. I don’t know how much rehearsal Lypsinka and Lecesne were able to get in before opening—the Sylvia Glenn role was played by drag legend Charles Busch in an earlier one-night-only reading—so maybe sparks will start firing between them soon. Meanwhile, there’s some comfort to take in the person of Roz White, who delivers a loose and confident performance in a sassy-black-housekeeper part that’s apparently always been embarrassingly problematic, and that Epperson reportedly worked to expand and complicate.
And there is, oh joy, one quintessentially Lypsinka moment. In a show in which two drama queens are constantly trying to upstage one another, it makes perfect sense for one of them to burst into song when the opportunity presents itself. One particular line of dialogue offers just such a chance—and suddenly there’s a flash of the precise razzle-dazzle the lady’s fans will have come looking for. If the forces assembled can inject some of that pizzazz into the rest of the slapstick and the silliness, they may have a shot at making something loopily good out of something legendarily bad.