HOLLYWOOD ARMSby Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett
Director: Melanie Mason
Assistant Director: Cathy Pritchett
Technical Director: Brian Scheffer
Production Manager: Karima Abdulla
Stage Manager: Cheyney Coles
Assistant Stage Manager: Nick Clark
Scenic Designer: Bob Lavallee
Lighting Designer: Michael Winters
Sound Designer: Alex Krus
Costume Designer: Ric Dreumont Leal
Properties Designer: Melodi Dingus
Scenic Artist: Winston Ragle
Older Helen: Mikaela Krantz
Nanny: Trich Zaitoon
Younger Helen: Ingrid Fease
Louise: Lindsay Hayward
Jody: David Cook
Dixie: Maleka Mahdi
Malcolm: Christian Kenoly
Bill: Eric Porter
Alice: Alex Poscente
Cop #1: Dean Gosdin
Cop #2: Scott Kimball
Voiceover Artist: Anthony Bowling
Reviewed Performance: 8/3/2012
Reviewed by Chad Bearden, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Prior to Krantz's big scene, Helen, the pseudonymous stage analog of the famous comedienne, is portrayed by eleven year old Ingrid Fease who is mercifully not asked to do any sort of Carol Burnett impersonation. In her earlier days, Helen isn't the fast-taking wise-acre she would become, but a far more passive observer to the family tensions into which she is unwittingly born. Younger Helen is a role that could easily be played as manic and annoyingly precocious, but Fease thankfully plays young Helen not as a zany, budding comedian, but as an eerily focused, slightly weird child. The sorts of weird you don't notice until you stop and pay attention. Whether this is a deliberate choice by young Ingrid or just good execution of the director's intent, Ms. Fease comports herself well, never tries to steal the show, and presents a plausible and sympathetic version of a little girl who might grow up to be a famous entertainer.
What this odd little girl observes is life at the Hollywood Arms, a run-down boarding house in Hollywood where she and her grandmother move in the 1940s to be nearer to Helen's ambitious but average absentee mother, Louise, who abandoned her little girl in San Antonio years before, convinced that she could become a celebrity journalist in Tinsel town. In addition to witnessing the bitter friction between her mother and grandmother, young Helen is also encumbered with the arrival of another absentee parent, a well-meaning but alcoholic father. Also thrown into the mix are Louise's sweet but tragically love struck suitor, Bill; the Arms' front desk clerk, Dixie, whose son Malcolm becomes Helen's pal; and eventually a little sister, Alice.
That all of this actually happened (or something very similar to it) both adds to and detracts from the overall effectiveness of the play. Knowing that you're witnessing a story based on real events adds a certain urgency to each scene as you discover all manner of things you probably didn't know about Ms. Burnett's life. There is also added poignancy once you're familiar with the genesis of the original production which eventually found its way to Broadway. It is touching that the play was co-written by Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton. It is tragic that Hamilton passed away from lung and brain cancer before the show could open. This all comes together to create an emotionally powerful backdrop.
Like many biographies, however, Hollywood Arms has a certain narrative choppiness that interrupts the flow of things. Events happen not because they structurally work together to forge an effective story but because they are actual things that happened and are in themselves interesting, and are therefore included.
To their credit, the Theatre Arlington cast is able to present these interesting moments effectively, but it does not mask the fact that the script possesses a stop-and-start quality that inhibits the smooth narrative flow necessary to create a truly sublime theatre experience.
And this script shortcoming is not helped by a series of clumsy scene transitions. There is exactly one scene change I found effective, wherein the lights went dim and the actors and set pieces rearranged themselves for the next scene. During this individual transition, what caught my attention was the way the two actors stayed in character as they set up for the next scene. Mother Louise was irritable and hung-over, grandmother tired and frustrated. And under the dark blue glow of the transition lights, Louise, seen only in silhouette, trudged lethargically to the couch and plopped upon it as though she couldn't bear to take another step. Grandmother, disgusted by her daughter's drunkenness, slouched, shoulders sunk, back to her Murphy bed. For all its seeming simplicity, it is a powerful moment that helps carry over the impact of the previous scene into the next.
Unfortunately, the majority of the transitions are the just the opposite, with actors breaking character as soon as the lights are dim to race to their next cue (many times exiting through the bathroom?) and crew members hurriedly rushing around picking up spent props and remaking the beds. Conversely, there are other lights-out transitions where nothing on stage is happening at all but the sound of period music which seems to go on just a few moments too long. Most of this can easily be chalked up to opening night glitches, and is likely something that will smooth itself out over the course of the run, but as it stands, only highlights the a weakness of the script.
So what doesn't need any improving? Well, that brings us back to Mikaela Krantz and her daunting task of being Carol Burnett. In the big scene mentioned above, Krantz, playing a still young but noticeably older Helen, comes home from her job as a theater usher and reenacts the unlikely adventure she had at work after the projector broke down and she saved the day by reenacting the film for the disgruntled audience. The monologue Krantz delivers is not an easy one and demands a significant ramping up of Helen's comedic presence.
There is a moment when she's just getting started where it seems like Krantz might be trying too hard. Too much energy all at once: a deluge of silly and wacky and zany but lacking Burnett's elegant cool. Gone is the weirdly measured little girl from Act I who during intermission apparently decided she wanted to steal the spotlight. But as Ms. Krantz picks up steam, she manages to tame all that wild vitality, and the performance settles in. She gets all her silly voices and showboating mannerisms under control and brings the whole unwieldy enterprise in for a graceful landing as her manic reenactment fades into the lovely introspective "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows".
Like several moments in the play, this sequence is a jarring transition but one that ultimately works, striking a tenuous balance between the silliness and sadness of Ms. Burnett's early life. And unexpectedly, Krantz makes it work by not trying to be Carol Burnett. She's playing with the same type of energy to be sure, but it's not an impersonation. Helen may have the same life as Carol Burnett, but as portrayed by Ms. Krantz, she becomes a distinct parallel to the playwright, not a mere copy. This is a wonderful acting choice and narrowly averts the potential problem of not being able to replicate or control Ms. Burnett's strange charm.
The remainder of the cast also provides strong characterizations that keep the play engaging even when the pacing is off. Maleka Mahdi brings an appropriate level of sass to desk clerk, Dixie, as does Christian Kenoly, who plays her son Malcolm. Kenoly shares that subtle oddness with Frease as the two interact on the boarding house roof in Helen's younger days. Alex Poscente is all ebullience and attitude as Helen's younger sister, Alice. Poscente's playfulness in her role almost teeters into all-out improv but she's in control, she brings a great energy to each of her scenes.
David Cook makes a strong impression as Helen's father Jody, a damaged man who clearly loves his daughter and even seems to have it in him to be a good father. Cook is wonderful at conveying not just this love but also his mostly unspoken deadbeat past. You're never quite sure of the specifics of how Jody ended up divorced and estranged, but Cook's portrayal makes it clear that he is haunted by something in his past.
Equally powerful is what could have easily been a throwaway role: Eric Porter's performance as Louise's unrequited admirer, Bill. He is accused of being boring, and even as Helen's grandmother advocates for him as a potential husband for her daughter, she admits she likes him for his money. But Porter plays Bill as a genuinely good man. He is strong and focused and compassionate, and of all the characters he seems the least deserving of the sadness he must endure. Porter is very effective in his limited stage time.
And the cause of Bill's sadness, as well as everyone else's for that matter, is Louise, brought to life by Lindsay Hayward. Like the transition from young Helen to older Helen, Louise transforms fairly dramatically between acts, shifting from a spunky optimist to depressing lush.
The metamorphosis mostly works, in large part thanks to Hayward subtly planting the seeds of Louise's downfall throughout Act I without being too ham-handed about it. Though Act I Louise and Act II Louise almost seem like different people, Hayward finds a continuity that ties the two together. And like most of the adults in this story, she still earns a few threads of sympathy despite Louise being such an awful person.
Finally, despite this being a play about the life of Carol Burnett, the central figure looming over everyone's lives is Helen's grandmother, Nanny, played with southern brassy confidence by Trich Zaitoon. Whereas the two actresses who actually play Carol Burnett find success by never trying to Be Carol Burnett, Zaitoon plunges head-first into a very impressive rendition, not of the comedienne herself, but of a character associated with her, Thelma Harper (memorably played by Vickie Lawrence in Burnett's The Family skits as well as on the television program, Mama's Family). Zaitoon's approach is fascinating as she seems to use the character as a jumping off point, and then transcends its comedic roots by shirking off the low-stakes tension of sit-com dilemmas and addressing head-on the high-stakes tensions of real life poverty, physical frailty, broken families, and alcoholism. Nanny is a comic character confronting the horrors of the real world.
All the weaknesses and flaws that would get a laugh in a comedy skit become tragic in a grounded reality. Zaitoon's approach is a bold one and results in an impressively rounded character that stunningly finds a truth in Nanny that probably represents what Carol Burnett's actual grandmother really was - a tough old broad that did her best as she saw it to raise her granddaughter, and an influence so powerful she became a template for many of her granddaughter's creations decades later. Ms. Zaitoon doesn't create a Carol Burnett character as much as she creates an ancestor of all those characters, which is really quite impressive.
Theatre Arlington's technical crew may have been suffering from opening night jitters, as most of their problems were in execution, such as too-abrupt lighting changes or some slightly out of synch sound cues. There seemed to be some understandable confusion, for instance, during a deceptively complicated scene involving three or four ringing telephones. Some of the problems however, are in design, including some awkward transition voiceovers that, one assumes, are supposed to dovetail neatly with subsequent live dialogue from those same actors after the lights come up. The shift from clear booming voices over the speakers to the more distant voices of live actors is yet another odd transition that kept reminding me that I was in a theatre in Arlington, Texas and not in the slums of 1940s Hollywood. Far more effective are several radio announcer bits performed by Anthony Bowling, which vividly conjure the era with period commercials, sports casts and news updates.
Two positive elements the production staff can be proud of are the sets and costumes. Scenic Designer, Bob Lavallee, presents a very livable set that feels homey, if a bit spacious, while still being shabby. I particularly like the maze-like entrances and exits from the apartment, visitors and residents disappearing out of sight down an unseen hallway only to reappear on the other side of the set a few moments later. Or the unseen window connecting the bathroom to the roof, making possible one particular visually fun interchange between sisters Helen and Alice. These are nice, quirky, realistic touches. Likewise, Ric Dreumont Leal provides costumes that evoke the era and characters very effectively, whether it is the sophistication of a pre-booze Louise, the rustic simplicity of matriarch Nanny, or the corny usherette's outfit Helen wears home from work.
And credit should go to Director Melanie Mason for coaxing very nice performances from a very fine cast. An audience member can never be quite sure how much of an interesting performance is the specific choices of an actor and how much it is the vision of the director. However much direct influence she may have had, Mason pulls together several varied approaches of confronting the materiel into a cohesive whole. And it is these myriad performances that outshine some of the weaker aspects of the show. In spite of some awkward transitions, abrupt light fades and odd voiceovers, Nanny and Louise and Helen are three interesting ladies, brought to life by four interesting actresses, and are certainly enough to engage your attention should you decide to head over the Theatre Arlington for the next performance of Hollywood Arms.
305 West Main Street, Arlington, Texas 76010
Runs through August 19th.
The show contains strong language and parental discretion is advised.
Thursday @ 7:30 pm
Friday & Saturday @ 8:00 pm
Sunday @ 2:00 pm
Adults - $19
Seniors / Students - $17
Group tickets (10 or more) - $15
To contact the box office, call 817-275-7661.
Contact Theatre Arlington by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, go to www.theatrearlin