Carol Burnett's story comes to Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 22, 2002 at 8:17 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- The play comic actress Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, have devised from Burnett's 1986 memoir, "One More Time," has come to Broadway with the title "Hollywood Arms," a bittersweet drama of three generations of women struggling to survive in an ugly world.

The play at the Cort Theater is a triumph for everyone involved -- Burnett, Hamilton, director Harold Prince, actresses Linda Lavin, Michele Pawk, Donna Lynne Champlin, and Sara Niemietz, and actor Frank Wood. Its story of love that is stronger than any adversity life may place in its way is affectingly told, tugging the heart while tickling the ribs with ironic humor.

For Lavin, whose role is that of a hard-as-nails skinflint grandmother who holds her dysfunctional family together, the play marks the coming full circle of a career that began 40 years ago as a member of the chorus in the musical, "A Family Affair." Prince was the director of that show, too. Lavin went on to win a Tony Award for "Broadway Bound" in 1987 and when not playing Broadway is a television director and producer.

The acerbic role of Nanny in "Hollywood Arms" is custom made for Lavin's talents, which are larger than life yet extremely subtle in detail. Watching her stage a hypochodriacal attack of whatever illness seems advantageous to getting her way along with a glass of sherry is worth the price of admission. Only a pro like Lavin could make such a relentlessly negative character into a life force worthy of an audience's admiration.

The play begins in 1941 when Nanny and her young granddaughter, Helen, leave their Texas home for Hollywood where Nanny's daughter and Helen's mother, Louise, has gone to seek a career as a magazine interviewer of film stars that never pans out. Divorced from her tubercular, alcoholic husband, Jody, Louise is living in a fleabag residential hotel that provides the play's title.

It is on the roof of the hotel, over which the famous Hollywood sign looms from a nearby hillside, that the lonely Helen begins acting out impressions of radio show hosts and their guest stars while dreaming of a career in show business. Eventually Helen escapes her possessive grandmother and her defeated mother, who has found oblivion in drink, by going to New York.

She wins an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on television in 1951, a break that jumpstarts her career just as it did for Burnett in real life. When Helen returns to Hollywood to visit her family and ease their hand-to-mouth existence, she takes her younger half-sister, Alice, back to New York with her, ostensibly for a visit but actually for good. It is her way of saving Alice from the hell of life with Nanny and Louise.

Despite the grimness of the subject matter, which includes Louise's pregnancy with Alice by a handsome but shiftless movie extra and her loveless second marriage to a colorless drudge who can pay her bills, there are some very funny scenes. One of them depicts Nanny and Louise's hilarious attempt at being bookies to earn money, an enterprise nipped in the bud by a police raid on their apartment.

Another laughable situation develops when Helen's family learns that she is on the Sullivan show and has trouble getting a picture on their TV set because they are too excited to manipulate the rabbit's ears antennae. It's the sort of scene that recalls the classic comedy sketches that made "The Carol Burnett Show" a national TV favorite, and director Prince has polished this one to perfection.

Giving a terrific, award-level performance as Louise is Michele Pawk, a beautiful powerhouse of an actress ("Chicago," "Cabaret," "Crazy for You") who is able to trace the downward course of her character's life, from youthful optimism about a chance to interview Cary Grant for Collier's magazine to utter defeat as a daughter, wife, and mother, leaving her emotionally bereft and physically dissipated.

Sara Niemietz is disarmingly resilient at Young Helen and her impression of Jeannette MacDonald warbling a movie aria is one of the play's memorable moments. Donna Lynne Champlin is creditable as Older Helen but appears too mature in the role, even though she is called upon to assume adult responsibilities.

Frank Wood is superb as Jody, a good father in spite of his failings, and Patrick Clear is completely sympathetic as Bill, the dull but hard-working man who falls in love with Louise and becomes her second husband. When he finally is fed up with her drinking and increasing stridency and leaves her, slumping away from the Hollywood Arms with two battered suitcases, it is one of the play's saddest moments.

Leslie Hendrix gives a colorful accounting of the hotel's supportive manager, and Nicolas King is winning as her precocious young son. Emily Graham-Hanley makes Alice an over-indulged pain in the neck in the play's most underwritten role.

Prince's direction is impeccable as befits one of the theater's legendary producer-directors, and Walt Spangler's efficiency hotel flat is suitably cramped and wonderfully evocative of transient accommodations on the wrong side of Hollywood and Vine. Judith Dolan has designed costumes that shriek 1940s unfashionable, and lighting by Howell Binkley and original music by Robert L. Nassif contribute to an overall sense of nostalgia.

"Hollywood Arms" was first presented at the Goodman Theater in Chicago last spring with virtually the same cast.

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