A hard Fall

What is it with Texas actresses and product endorsements gone wrong?
First Brenda Vaccaro rasped about the absorbent properties of tampons, then Sandy Duncan chirped about the healthy, wholesome taste of Wheat Thins in TV ads that have hung like albatrosses around their necks ever since. Vaccaro couldn't get arrested after doing her Ed McMahon bit for feminine napkins, while Duncan still labors under the sobriquet "The First Lady of Wheat."

It's a cruel fate for a talented actress, but Duncan, like some Teutonic heroine of yore, is not resigning herself to it without a fight. Instead, she's come up with a one-woman show intended to reinvent herself while casting out the demons that have circumscribed her career.

Free Fall, written by Sandy Duncan and Marc Alan Zargoren, is meant to demonstrate that Duncan is more than a perennial pixie doomed to play Marian, Madame Librarian in summer stock until the Grim Reaper comes for her equity card.

It opens with Duncan addressing the audience directly as herself, sans makeup or a character behind which she can hide. While going through some stretching exercises and other pre-performance rituals, she explains that acting, like life, is a free fall. There comes a point when you simply have to put your trust in other people (the audience, in an actor's case) and hope they catch you before you plummet like a stone.

What follows, rather unthematically, are three character studies of people struggling under the weight of burdensome personae. The play shifts abruptly from an essay on trust and the social contract to a more personal and self-conscious exploration of the friction that results when our adopted roles rub up against the reality of our true selves.

The first character we meet is Betty Byers, a lead hoofer from Zeigfield's Follies. We catch her in the midst of a dispute with Flo Zeigfield, a control freak who insists Betty conform to the "bright pixie" image he has helped create.

Betty would like to date and enjoy a normal sex life (even pixies like to hump, it seems), but professional and personal pressures cramp her style. There's a terpsichorean interlude during which Betty does a Roaring '20s-style dance number with Kevin McCready, an actor who plays a Silent Sam foil to Duncan throughout the play. Betty ultimately vows to "shed her skin" and "reinvent herself," prompted by a mysterious towheaded kid in white (Martin Bourqui) who appears periodically as sort of a Cupid of self-actualization.

Then Duncan becomes Charlie Fenton, a song-and-dance man who pays a male prostitute to listen to his tale of lost love and unfulfilled dreams. Charlie's a hard-drinking, cigar-chomping man's man from Texas who happens to be gay. He has plenty of talent, but his plain looks and propensity for being dropped like a hot biscuit by a variety of partners keep him from the big time. "Only talent is beautiful," he tells a departing lover. "You liked my talent, but you never loved me."

Last is Gabriella, a fading Marlene Dietrich type who worries that her act is no longer au courant. "Am I still relevant?" she asks, semitragically. She wants to "go beyond myself with truths, not with my bullshit," but is afraid of change. During a vocal number she has an epiphany in which she realizes the futility of maintaining her star persona. She peels down to her slip and lets the world see her for what she really is--a 50ish woman who's as vulnerable and insecure as the rest of us.

Each segment features soft-shoe dancing and a selection of great American standards by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and others. The WaterTower (nee Addison) Theatre sports a handsome, three-tiered stage that's put to good use in this production, as is Duncan's versatility.

The problem with the play (which is still a work-in-progress) is that it is too concerned with sending messages and not enough concerned with telling a story. The conflicts facing the three characters and their relevance to Duncan's own career are obvious--too close, in fact, for comfort. Each segment seems to broadcast an overly personalized credo--"I am not a pixie," "I am a talent, not a glamour girl," "I'm a person, not a star"--affirmation that may work as therapy but not as pure drama.

Duncan is to be commended for attempting to transform herself, but Free Fall is too tame and too close to her own bone to make us forget she's the cracker lady from television, immersed in wheat--"miles and miles of wheat," as Woody Allen put it in Love and Death.

What Duncan really needs is a rabbit-boiling role in a femme-fatale flick like Fatal Attraction, or a quirky part in a small but well-received independent production like Kicking and Screaming. Forget the one-woman shows, Sandy. Instead, go give your agent a swift kick in the ass.

Free Fall runs through May 12 at WaterTower Theatre at Addison Centre Theatre, 15650 Addison Road. Call 404-0228.


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