Nobody in the theater intentionally puts on a "steaming turd of a play," says Sylvia Glenn, one of two actress-characters in the showbiz-based comedy Legends. Well, actually, in the case of this script, they did.
Until Uptown Players, the Oak Lawn theater company, got their clever little mitts on it, Legends was one of the legendary flops of the American stage. Written by A Chorus Line librettist James Kirkwood in the 1980s, it was packaged back then as a comeback vehicle for Broadway veterans Mary Martin and Carol Channing. But the stars, like their Legends counterparts, fought like cats in a bag. And Martin, then in her 70s, kept muffing her lines. Launched in Dallas in January 1986, the troubled pre-Broadway tryout limped into 23 other cities before being put out of its and the audiences' misery, having never stumbled onto the Great White Way. Kirkwood published a tell-all journal, Diary of a Mad Playwright, detailing his miserable year on the road with the show, writing that working with Martin and Channing was "like doing a school play with two elderly 12-year-olds."
So 20 years go by and Legends languishes until being disinterred for another Broadway-bound version starring a pair of mummified goddesses from TV's Dynasty, Joan Collins and Linda Evans. Once again, the effort proved too much for the "talent," who fussed and feuded offstage but weren't convincing as enemies on. Kirkwood had died in 1989, and without him around to punch up the creaky script and punch holes in some massive egos, once again Legends went tits up.
As if better actresses and a massive rewrite could have won it a Tony. Burdened with a silly two-act plot about a couple of longtime screen rivals trying to settle their differences over gin and hash brownies, Legends is a big, warm dollop of theatrical merde. Good thing Uptown Players decided to be bold about casting its production. Instead of dressing up some more dotty waxworks to play the divas, they have dudes. Really, really funny dudes: B.J. Cleveland as bawdy Sylvia Glenn (the Channing role) and Coy Covington as Leatrice Monsée, the Oscar-winning prude whose credits mirror Mary Martin's.
Gaying it up by doing it in drag is definitely the way to turn this turkey into something snappy. Men in the main roles is what Kirkwood had wanted in the first place. When the playwright showed his unproduced script to director Mike Nichols in the '80s, Nichols suggested Harvey Fierstein and notorious New York theater drag star Bette "Bloolips" Bourne as Sylvia and Leatrice.
At Uptown, Cleveland and Covington, who've both tucked their goodies to play female characters before, reinvent Sylvia and Leatrice as wacky glamazons going at each other like snake and mongoose in fake boobs and high heels. Flouncing hither and thither in a sparkly evening gown (costumes by Suzi Cranford), Cleveland, built like a fireplug, is a meatier Bette Midler, throwing outrageously hammy moves and killing the crowd with them. Covington, a tall, lean blond with legs like a mean Rockette, can deftly time a glance, a grimace or a ground heel. He reacts instantly to Cleveland's most outlandish antic tricks, ready for anything and more than willing to go off-script when necessary (easier to do when the playwright's dead).
They almost have to take huge liberties to sell a play chock full of Reagan-era references. The dialogue now serves as merely a loose framework for Covington and Cleveland, who invest in endless little bits of physical business that pay off as crack-up moments of low comedy. During the hash brownie sequence, a thing with a toothpick and a piece of sausage that the actors improvised in rehearsal with director Andi Allen builds into one of the show's longest laughs.
The play reveals more of its weak spots whenever the spotlight veers away from the bewigged ones. Natalie King does some eye-rolling and hip-jutting as Aretha, a sarcastic maid right off The Jeffersons. Chris Dover struggles to mug like Martin Short in his role as a sleazy producer chasing Sylvia and Leatrice to star in Thelma & Louise: The Musical. D. Dean shakes what his mama gave him as the purveyor of a strip-o-gram. And Shane Beeson comes on at the end as a policeman who's there just to wind things up.
Most of Legends is the gals, and that's good. They've slapped a hot mess into sharp comic focus, hiding the play's considerable flaws under riotously good performances.
We turn now from the nonsense of Legends to the troubled nuns and priest of Doubt, a Parable, John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-winning 2005 one-act that delves into secrets and lies in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. Terry Martin has directed the local premiere for Addison's WaterTower Theatre.
This is a tough, provocative play, an unsettling look into the potentially destructive effects of both moral certainty and uncertainty when they're taken to extremes. It's also a nifty mystery involving charismatic Father Flynn (played by Regan Adair) and the suspicions of the school principal, a fire-breathing dragon of a nun named Sister Aloysius (Nancy Sherrard), who believes the priest is "interfering with" the school's only black student (never seen). An idealistic new teacher, Sister James (Jessica Wiggers), agonizes about whether to back up the older nun's allegations. She wants to believe in the priest, who denies everything, but she can see the 12-year-old student suffering. The case grows more complicated when the boy's mother (Denise Lee), in a confrontation with Sister Aloysius, makes surprising demands about how she wants the matter handled.
In short scenes, Shanley shifts the evidence to one side and then another, always leaving the viewer unsure who the villain might be. Is genial Father Flynn really a pedophilic monster behind that smile? Or is Sister Aloysius, who thinks ballpoint pens are dangerously high tech, bent on derailing the career of the popular priest because he's trying to modernize the church?
Expertly acted by the four-member ensemble—particularly Adair, who uses a convincing Boston Irish brogue, and Lee, who brings a quiet power to her role as the mom—WaterTower's Doubt is marred by static staging by Martin that leaves actors stuck in one spot, sitting in face-to-face profile for long stretches. Un-miked, their voices occasionally drop too low to be heard from the back rows and having them turned sideways doesn't help.
John Hobbie's scenic design is also problematic. He has taken great care to place realistic-looking bricks on school walls and real dried leaves on the ground. But the door to Sister Aloysius' office is a flimsy panel painted with fake brown wood grain that looks slapdash and out of place on the rest of the set. And for a play that feels like a small chamber piece, filling WaterTower's barnlike space with tall church roof peaks and stained glass windows only serves to dwarf the actors on the stage below.
At just 90 minutes, Doubt is a beautiful play that resonates with Shanley's precise, well-tempered dialogue. It's also a puzzler. Like a biblical parable, the story offers more to ponder beyond simply what is said. It keeps the audience guessing. Did he or didn't he? At the end we think we know. Or do we?