The woman sitting behind me at Legends—James Kirkwood’s terminally unfunny comedy about faded, feuding movie divas thrown together by circumstance—practically vibrated at the theatricality of it all.
“I just love this moment before the curtain goes up,” she burbled as the house lights dimmed, articulating that dusty old evergreen as if minting it freshly. “You can almost feel the electricity.”
Presumably she was expecting, as was the rest of the premiere’s half-empty house, that the voltage would be generated by faded TV divas Joan Collins and Linda Evans. And with smiles as wide (and faces, eerily, every bit as smooth) as the ones they exhibited in the ’80s, the poor things are indeed trying to gin up a bit of energy here and there. Not too strenuously, mind you—a wig-pulling catfight takes place offstage—and not to any real effect. Still, they’re trying.
Collins, trussed and coiffed more or less flatteringly, is playing the tougher of Kirkwood’s two broads, broadly. The author conceived Sylvia as a Joan Crawford bad-girl type, brassy, trashy, and fierce, and Collins, who spent much of her TV career cultivating that sort of image, has effectively Collins-ized her. The lady can act, but she’s not really bothering here, as she struts and poses and revels in whatever minor shreds of cleverness she finds in her lines.
Evans, who enters in a fur-trimmed cape that’s far more dramatic than anything she does onstage, portrays Sylvia’s rival—the demure if reservedly caustic Leatrice, big-screen exponent of various nuns, nurses, and saints—in a manner that might best be described as natural. Nothing about her suggests emotional fireworks of any sort. She sits quietly when someone else has a line and delivers Leatrice’s occasional zinger entirely pleasantly.
Both stars are, in short, fine, though it’s a bit deflating to discover that director John Bowab is allowing them to be acted off the stage by their costumes. Nolan Miller has created gowns and pantsuits that delineate character (sequins for Sylvia, earth tones for Leatrice) far more persuasively than the folks wearing them seem to have any hope of doing. Bowab’s strenuously dull staging surrounds the stars with a supporting cast—Will Holman as a Chippendales stripper, Ethan Matthews as a clueless policeman, Tonye Patano as an acerbic maid, and Joe Farrell as a hyperactive producer—that bumps, grinds, and chews scenery (Jesse Poleshuck’s decidedly unappetizing Sutton Place apartment, no less) in a ferocious if mostly doomed effort to work the audience up to a mild frenzy of chuckles.
The fault, of course, isn’t really theirs. Though Kirkwood puts mild profanity (and a plateful of hash brownies) in the mouths of his stars, Legends played just as woodenly, though to fuller houses, on its first go-round at the National Theatre two decades ago. Back then it was a vehicle for Carol Channing and Mary Martin, two musical-comedy stars who had real audience affection, rather than mere celebrity curiosity, working for them, and still the show would have disappeared from our collective memory had Kirkwood not written a tell-all volume, Diary of a Mad Playwright, about the abortive efforts to fix it on the road. His anecdotes—the best concerns the inadvertent tuning of a wireless earpiece, through which a forgetful Martin was fed her lines, to a frequency used by taxi dispatchers—are far more amusing than his Legends script.
Kirkwood kvetches throughout the volume that while the reviews were uniformly lethal (the Washington Post headline on Dave Richards’ 1986 critique was “What Becomes a Legend Least?”), the producers refused to let him do much-needed rewrites. Since Kirkwood died a few years later, he’s not around to do them now, which raises the question of why anyone would want to re-create—in nearly all its particulars—so well-documented a debacle. Hope springs eternal.
And the producers seem to have learned well enough from their predecessors’ mistakes to be able to duplicate them exactly. Like the Dolly–vs.–Peter Pan mounting, this Dynasty tour of Legends has scheduled lots of brief runs in the hinterlands, where word of mouth theoretically won’t have time to turn dire, in hopes that stellar grosses will justify a Broadway engagement.
Didn’t work then, of course, and if the half-empty opening in D.C. is any indication, it’s not likely to happen this time either. At intermission, the woman behind me didn’t seem nearly as electrified by all that Dynast-ic star power as she’d expected to be. She stood, though, and pulled out her camera, for the only piece of staging the director really gets right—a curtain call in which lighting designer Phil Monat lowers a backdrop that seems to be popping with the sparkle of a thousand flashbulbs as the stars are revealed with arms outstretched in low-cut scarlet gowns. It’s the stage equivalent of a studio publicity shot, with the blinding flashes—some from behind, and a lot more from out front, where cameras were suddenly everywhere—erasing the ravages of time as effectively, and about as persuasively, as any airbrush could.CP