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Theater Review:

"HOLLYWOOD ARMS" at Goodman Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

As might be the case with any autobiographical work reimagined for the theater, "Hollywood Arms" – the stage adaptation by Carol Burnett and her late daughter Carrie Hamilton based on Burnett’s memoir, "One More Time" – could benefit from a more objective eye. Surprisingly, much-lauded director Harold Prince has not provided the necessary artistic distance that could make "Hollywood Arms" – receiving its world premiere at Goodman Theatre – the touchingly empowering comedy it deserves to be.

Burnett, one of the most beloved and barrier-breaking comediennes of our time, certainly knows how to craft a joke. But going for the easy laugh tends to undermine the tragic undertones of this dramatized account of her upbringing by her Christian Scientist grandmother in a rundown apartment in the Hollywood Hills. It also has the contrived and corny feel of either a melodramatic flick shown during Saturday matinees in the 1940s/’50s or a made-for TV biopic that hits audiences over the head with the dramatic equivalent of a sledgehammer. It falls into the most irritatingly basic traps of shallow character types and unrealistic fast-forward plot advancements.

"Hollywood Arms" begins in 1941 when Burnett – called Helen here – is a child who has just moved to California with her eccentric grandmother, referred to as Nanny, in order to live with her mother, Louise, a lost young woman who harbors delusions of becoming an interviewer to the stars. Helen’s parents are divorced, but her alcoholic father, Jody, often returns to try to establish something of a normal relationship with his daughter. Conflict arises between the strong but manipulative Nanny and independent-minded but misguided Louise when Nanny insists her daughter marry a rather boring admirer, Bill, mainly to serve as their "meal ticket."

Instead Louise continues to see her lover, a married man, and soon gets pregnant. The lover abandons her, and she eventually gives birth to a baby girl, Alice. Meanwhile, Helen creates a world of make-believe on the roof. By the second act, which has jumped to 1951, Helen is pursuing a Broadway career as her mother – who eventually married Bill – descends into an alcoholic haze; her little sister Alice is headed down a wayward path; and Nanny remains the family’s droll and impetuous Rock of Gibraltar.

Apart from the fact that the play is at least 30 minutes too long (it’s almost three hours), "Hollywood Arms" is little more than a rags-to-riches, a-star-is-born cliché. Rarely does it expand beyond sketch-comedy vignettes. Nanny (portrayed with spunky tenacity by Linda Lavin) gets all the best lines, especially a segment in which she mutters through a facts-of-life lecture to Helen using euphemisms, like Roger and Susie, for certain body parts. But, by the end, the Nanny character – with her calculated moans and drawn-out "for God’s sakes" pleas – can grate on one’s nerves. When all is said and done, Nanny is nothing more than a comedic device.

And that’s one of the main problems with this play. Everyone is a stock character with manufactured lines (e.g. Louise: "This whole goddamn world is fixed." Or Nanny referring to a rowdy neighborhood boy: "That boy is headed straight for the post office wall.") Even Helen’s second-act, one-person reenactment – a la Danny Kaye – of an entire movie comes across as forced and a bit hokey (even if this very same routine launched Burnett’s career).

While the work drones on in caricatured repetition, it forgets to craft a focused, multidimensional story. Excerpts from Burnett’s best-selling book seem like they’ve been thrown on stage without much attention paid to dramatic fluidity or purpose. Worse yet, we never really know whose story we’re supposed to follow. Is it about Helen’s imaginative escape from an abusive and poverty-stricken household. Is it about Louise’s shattered dreams and battle with alcoholism? Is it about Nanny’s hard-edged resilience and survival instincts in the midst of the Depression and World War II?

On a separate note, Nanny delivers the usual flippant line that’s inexcusably offensive to Italians. Nanny warns Louise about her married lover, Nick, stating, "He’s Italian…Italians can’t be trusted. Look at Al Capone." Yet, as is often the case, the audience breaks into riotous laughter – a fact more disturbing than the line itself.

But this is a play rife with stereotypes and throw-away situations. What’s the point, for instance, of Louise’s ditzy neighbor, Dixie (a role that entirely squanders the talents of Chicago actress Barbara E. Robertson)? The two actors playing the police officers, who raid the women’s off-track betting operation, thanklessly appear on stage for a few uninteresting minutes.

Regardless of the limitations of the role, Lavin delivers a top-notch performance as the stingingly invincible Nanny. She is the only reason to see this show. Michele Pawk is quite poised and polished as Louise, but she leans toward plasticized musical-comedy mode – not surprising, given the TV variety-show tone of the script. Among the other actors, only Donna Lynne Champlin stands out as the determined older Helen; and Nicolas King as the young Helen’s rowdy friend, Malcolm, steals every scene he’s in. Sara Niemietz’s young Helen is too stagy and wooden, and the rest of the ensemble is quite conscious of playing types.

Walt Spangler’s movable screen-like set, suggestive of the movies’ fantasy world juxtaposed against the dreariness of this family’s cramped apartment, is a clever – if not entirely effective – design choice. The same is true of Howell Binkley’s sepia-tinged spotlight lighting. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen dutifully recreate Hollywood’s penchant for overblown scores; and costume designer Judith Dolan remains faithful to the fashions (even the drab ones) of that era.

Many people will no doubt be attracted to this play because Burnett’s name is attached to it. But, in an odd way, "Hollywood Arms" really does not provide us with new insights into this groundbreaking comedienne’s experiences. It could be anyone’s and no one’s story at the same time. And that bland, anonymous quality undermines the aching tragedy at the core of this story – a story that can’t push through the predictable one-liners and rampant cliches.

"Hollywood Arms" runs through June 1 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-443-3800 or log onto www.goodman-theatre.org.


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