The Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art is the perfect venue for a play about Dorothy Parker.
Seats have been arranged around three sides of the "stage," making the space even more intimate than it already is. The front row of seats is tucked behind small café tables lit with tiny candles, and when the lights dim, you feel like you're in a smoky New York bar, awaiting the appearance of a celebrated performer.
And indeed you are: the ghost of Dorothy Parker both enlivens and haunts Dorothy Parker's Last Call, the debut production of the Winding Road Theater Ensemble.
Not sure who Parker is? Then you're in for a treat. One of the pleasures of this one-woman show is getting the highlight reel of the remarkable life of this famous writer of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. (She died in 1967.)
As written and performed by Lesley Abrams, the recently departed Parker begins her post-mortem monologue by a ticking off of the husbands, lovers, suicide attempts and pets that she tallied in her lifetime. Then she spends the rest of the evening coloring in the details with celebrity name-dropping and humorous anecdotes.
The Algonquin Round Table? The screenplay for A Star Is Born? The Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein? The creation of the Writers Guild union in Hollywood?
It's difficult to determine from this play to what degree Parker was a maker of literary history or a passenger along for the ride, but it is clear that she lived a life perfectly tailored to her talents as a bon vivant of intellect and wit.
"Wit," she says, "has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."
In fact, Parker's wit is the true star of the evening. The audience is engaged not just by the facts of her remarkable life—she was a theater critic, screenwriter, poet and contributor to the New Yorker and other early literary magazines—but by the way she describes them, by her language, her insights, her dry sense of humor.
Abrams has liberally peppered the script with Parker's verbal gems. Some are still familiar, while others deserve to be resurrected. Clare Boothe Luce once held open a door for Parker, declaring, "Age before beauty." Parker parried with, "And pearls before swine."
When challenged by a friend to use "horticulture" in a sentence, she responded, "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
Last Call suggests that the sparkling one-liners also helped Parker to mask her inner turmoil. Starting with the early death of her mother, and up through her own failed marriages and unsuccessful pregnancies, Parker carried a heavy load. Unfortunately, Last Call uses Parker's wit in the same defensive way.
It occasionally cracks the surface of her emotional pain, but never dives too deeply before safely resurfacing with another anecdote.
This surface treatment is due in part to the show's one great weakness: It lacks drama. The starting point for both actor and playwright is to ask, what does this character want? And, what must she overcome to get it? The only thing Parker appears to want is a drink, and her wish is magically granted early in the evening. Where does she go from there? And why is Parker telling us about her life in the first place? Is there anything moving us from event to event, other than the passing of time? These questions linger through the evening.
This doesn't mean that Last Call is dull—not by a long shot. Parker's life, writings and snarky remarks could enthrall an audience for much longer than this play's breezy 75 minutes.
What it does mean is that Abrams, as author, has created a problem for herself, as performer. Not having an objective to achieve leaves her with little to do beyond showing off her material. Showing off can be entertaining, but it's rarely compelling. Dorothy Parker's life story is rich enough to be both.
Abrams and director Glen Coffman occasionally use moments of theatricality to reach deeper into Parker's psyche. When Parker is quoting the words of someone close to her, a recorded voice will echo them back. At other times, lights shift and Parker is summoned upstage to field questions from the recorded voices of unseen reporters. But these moments are jarring, and never really coalesce into something meaningful.
It's telling that Abrams comes most alive in her performance when she lays aside Parker's sharp-witted persona. Several times, she steps into characters from Parker's short stories, and the result is a revelation. As a young woman agonizing over why her boyfriend hasn't called, for example, Abrams lights up the stage. Here she has something to act, and her performance is captivating.
Also thrilling are the moments of quiet conflict when Parker struggles against alcohol. Time after time she circles the stage, but inevitably comes back to a tea cart bearing alcohol in a cut glass decanter. Initially she celebrates the joy of a good drink, but it slowly becomes clear that she can't control herself. The fleeting moments of uncertainty in her eyes, as she struggles between having another glass and feeling her pain, are the moving highlight of Abrams' performance.
But Dorothy Parker would never allow herself to dwell on such a vulnerable moment—at least not in public—and neither does the play. As Parker once wrote:
"Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live."