Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness

By Tony Kushner

Directed by Daniel De Raey

At Studio Theater to October 8

love your chaaaaarming cahhhhttage,” announces Bette Davis with a fasten-your-seatbelts cigarette flourish on entering Elizabeth Fuller’s Westport, Conn., home in Me and Jezebel. “That potholed driveway needs attention.”

As played uproariously but without a trace of camp by Rick Hammerly in this apparently true-to-life chronicle of how the film star descended on Fuller’s family in 1985 for a “one- or possibly two-day” siege that ended up lasting a month, Davis is 78. She has been reduced by three strokes, a mastectomy, a daughter’s tell-all confessional (My Mother’s Keeper), and God knows how many cigarettes to a shadow of her former self. Still, she’s a shadow with heft, as Elizabeth, her husband John, and toddler Christopher discover when they take her in during a New York hotel strike.

That trademark Davis bleat—an uninflected monotone that overcame the vagaries of ’30s microphones and silenced a host of co-stars—is as grating as ever. The enormous eyes that inspired Kim Carnes are batting like mad. The scarlet slash of her lips, the Max Factor blush at her cheeks, the eyebrows penciled high on her forehead giving her a perpetually startled look—can only partly succeed at counteracting the ravages of time. But if this star is physically fragile, she is in no way dimmed. With hips thrust forward so that a prim little tummy precedes her when she walks, she is determination made flesh. What, after all, is frailty in the face of monumental ego?

Soon she’s commandeering the kitchen, listening in on phone calls, insisting on a firmer mattress, dispensing “awwwtographs” at the McDonald’s down the street, and driving John from the house and Elizabeth to distraction. Even the fact that she’s an unexpected hit with 2-year-old Christopher (whom she treats as a miniature adult) has a downside, revealed when the lad sweetly greets a baby sitter with “I hope ya can play Candyland, fa’crissake.”

Elizabeth’s take on all this is a peculiarly volatile mixture of shock and heroine-worship. As played giddily by Mary Tucker (who also gives voice to all the non-Davis roles), she keeps telling the audience she’s thrilled at the presence of a fabled star in her parlor, while worrying about the tiny piles of cigarette ash accumulating on her rugs and tables. Because Elizabeth vividly remembers going with her grandmother to all of Davis’ films, watching a video of Jezebel with Jezebel is more than a minor treat. Still, as the star’s stay stretches to weeks and John starts leaving bed-and-breakfast catalogs in the guest room, Elizabeth’s loyalties are divided. The words “Day 17”—with which she begins an anecdote about facing down an attack dog while picking raspberries with her idol—are uttered with something akin to desperation.

While the evening lacks the arc of drama, Hammerly’s nuanced performance and Jeff Church’s expertly calibrated staging keep it from coming across as a mere celebrity impersonation. Hammerly’s Davis is a bitch goddess, a megalomaniacal star, and enormously good company for anyone with a taste for frank talk. Whether commenting on her rivalry with Joan Crawford (“My only regret was I didn’t get to slap her around more in Baby Jane”) or on the television shows her hostess’s toddler watches (“If I hear “yaaaaaaba-daaaaaaba-doo’ one more time, I think I shall vomit”), Davis is unfailingly brusque. And as often happens with those who don’t suffer fools gladly, she makes an art of abruptness. Hammerly lets the audience see that even the character’s most casual-sounding comments are precisely aimed, as when Davis notes that her born-again daughter gave her a copy of My Mother’s Keeper for Mother’s Day, inscribed with an exhortation to accept the Lord in her life. “As if I didn’t have enough goddamn troubles,” Hammerly exhales, brushing away the pun and the hurt as if they were wisps of smoke from one of Davis’ ever-present cigarettes.

Fine as he is when pursuing laughs, the actor is even better when required to mine such moments of vulnerability without striking the vein of mawkishness that lies uncomfortably near the surface of Fuller’s script. One scene, in which Davis sits motionless with humiliation as her daughter ineptly fields a TV interviewer’s questions, is simple and affecting where it might easily have been milked for tears. It may seem odd that what is essentially a drag act should be so notable for restraint, but it’s undeniably why the evening works. Harriet Engler’s severe frocks, wigs, and hats and Tess Riggs’ lived-in setting are also assets.

The show is currently scheduled through early October, but the next MetroStage attraction doesn’t open until February. If the company’s smart, it’ll provide lodging for Me and Jezebel for as long as Hammerly’s willing to hang around, batting those long-lashed Bette Davis eyes of his.

Alight snow is falling onstage as the audience enters Studio Theater for Tony Kushner’s Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness. The setting is the steps of the Kremlin in the same year Bette Davis arrived in Westport, but we’re a world away in every conceivable respect. A pair of charwomen roughly sweep up the snow as quickly as it falls, and as the houselights dim, they begin to frame an argument about the fall of socialism. As Politburo members arrive, it becomes clear the women have been setting the tone for authorial debates to come.

Kushner soon has the Old and New Guards squaring off on the question of whether people would rather die than change or whether they’d rather change than die. But first, director Daniel De Raey and designer James Kronzer have a few tricks up their sleeves. The snowy Kremlin steps pull back into a wall, and with a minor shift in Tom Sturge’s lighting the stage is transformed into an empty room swept by chill winds entering through broken windows. Then a panel slides into place and the snow-swept room becomes a warm, picture-lined study whose well-worn chairs are occupied by weary men who seem to be the very husks of Communism. Another lighting shift, and the men are watching a speech in which the world’s oldest living Bolshevik rails about the great questions posed by the demise of the Soviet Union.

“How are we to proceed without theory?” bellows the aptly named Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, his question echoing against the back walls of the huge Politburo. “What system of thought have these reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization?…Do they have, as we did, a beautiful theory? You who live in this sour little age cannot imagine the grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon: like standing atop the highest peak in the mighty Caucasus, and viewing in one all-knowing glance the mountainous granite order of creation. You cannot imagine it. I weep for you.”

If those words sound familiar, it’s because they served as an odd, seemingly irrelevant prologue to Perestroika, the second half of Kushner’s Angels in America. In Slavs!, they’re expanded upon as the central notion in an evening of heady philosophizing that’s every bit as frustrating as it is intriguing.

Kushner has described the show as a coda to Angels, and its take on the loss of idealism is certainly of a piece with the earlier work’s sentiments. But while the author has filled this new dissertation with lesbians, lovesick apparatchiks, bottled brains, silent children, screaming mothers, and a wealth of incident ranging from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to a heavenly communist convocation, he hasn’t come up with something that could be called drama. Rather, he’s devised a Shavian framework for the asking of political questions, mostly centered on whether people will submit to being “moldable clay in the hands of history.”

Shaw he’s not, but he may be the closest approximation the U.S. theater can muster at the moment. And when he sets tongues wagging in Slavs!, they tend to wrap around conversation that’s at least as startling, if not always as rewarding, as it was in Angels: “The brain inhabits the body as a virus inhabits a cell,” says someone. “If Dostoevsky had lived in America and had a sunnier disposition, he might have been Emerson,” says someone else. For those who fancy bright cocktail chatter, there’s plenty here.

There’s also a certain amount of substantial thought that bubbles to the surface most persuasively when it’s encapsulated in emotion. The fury and frustration of a mother (Nancy Robinette) whose 10-year-old has never spoken (possibly because a previous, now-unaccountable regime dumped nuclear waste near her birthplace) does not require spoken words to register with an audience.

De Raey’s intelligent, quasi-cinematic staging works relative wonders with the diffuse script. By subtly encouraging patrons to focus on physical movement that complements the swirl of ideas, the director makes those ideas seem more concrete than you might think possible. And he gets sensitive performances from a cast that ought really to have rebelled at having to speak in Russian accents thicker than vodka left overnight in a freezer. Though no amount of clever staging would make Slavs! rewarding in conventionally dramatic ways, what can be done with the work is being done—and done compellingly—at Studio.