If Elaine Stritch isn’t the woman who put the broad in Broadway, I don’t know who is. Certainly, after nearly six decades in residence, she’s a legend on that street. And now, like Homer in the Odyssey, she’s dusting off the myth and taking it on the road. In Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which has at last arrived at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, the gravel-voiced 79-year-old dynamo, clad in black hose and a thigh-grazing white silk shirt, her principal accessory a couple of kleenex stuffed into black dance pants, tells the story of her life and sings the songs that made her famous. It’s like Stage Door crossed with Lost Weekend, with a score by Noël Coward and Stephen Sondheim. Yet it’s so much more than that — the "more" being what makes this textbook on the art of theater so moving on a deeply human, gut level. Elaine Stritch is the Fabulous Invalid, the undeniably waning, still kicking Broadway stage on human legs. And what legs: as the simple, limb-revealing costume shows, Stritch has always played to her strengths.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty debuted at the Public Theatre in late 2001 and went on to conquer Broadway, London, and HBO, winning the notoriously passed-over star her first Tony and an Emmy as well. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the script is the result of what must have been an amusing dust-up between the famously feisty Stritch and writer/critic John Lahr, who was brave enough to get into the ring with her and help bat around her life. An admixture of hilarious show-biz anecdote and candid revelation, the show moves more or less chronologically from Stritch’s privileged childhood as convent girl and niece of a Detroit cardinal to her dozen years as an unlikely virgin in New York, where she dated the likes of Marlon Brando, to the roles that have writ the legend and the booze-ameliorated loneliness that accompanied it.
In the theater, at least, the gifted and distinctive Stritch, who never became the sort of household word that film and TV coin, has led a charmed if hollow-legged life, the highlights of which stretch from "Civilization," the ridiculous dialect ditty she introduced in the 1947 revue Angel in the Wings, and "Zip," which she redefined in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, to Coward’s "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and what the performer calls "Stephen Sondheim’s three-act play, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch,’ " both of which were written for her. All those songs are here, put across in Stritch’s purr-to-bark of a voice and song stylings that run from the musically conversational to the spectacular. Stritch has become a mistress of underpinning her delivery with emotion as true as it is mournful or volcanic. If I hadn’t known that in act two she was to meet and enjoy 10 years of happiness with the English actor John Bay, I might not have survived the searing dose of bereavement and resignation with which she brings down the first-act curtain with Coward’s "If Love Were All."
Lahr came up with the notion of Stritch’s reliving her life on stage since, thanks to commodious alcohol consumption, she missed a lot of it the first time around. He has her quote Beckett: "Absent, always" — which she follows with an adorable screwed-up mouth, as if to say, "I know that you know I didn’t write that line." Then, as she has been known to do to scripts by masters and hacks alike, she tweaks it a little. (She also tells a great story about aborting her Golden Girls audition by asking a writer "with a Doris Day haircut and an attitude" whether she might add the word "fucking" to a line about hors d’œuvre. There went a few million dollars into Bea Arthur’s pocketbook.)
Calling herself "an existential problem in tights," Stritch prowls the empty stage, occasionally propping herself up with the only stage dressing other than a red velvet curtain, a stool. She hops onto this from time to time, crossing those shapely appendages and losing herself in what seems like pure, raw reminiscence, as when she croons Jule Styne’s "There Never Was a Baby Like My Baby" for Bay, who died of cancer in 1982.
There’s hardly a moment of this almost two-and-three-quarters-hours heartfelt tramp down memory lane that isn’t either delicious or riveting or both, from Coward’s pontification after the 1958 flop Goldilocks that "any leading lady who doesn’t do a double take when a nine-foot bear asks her to dance is my kind of actress" to what must be the definitive — as well as the most deserved — rendition of Sondheim’s "I’m Still Here." But the play’s second act, in which the diabetic Stritch does her final battle with Demon Rum, is even more gallantly galvanic than the first. Booze, the actress says, was the long-time companion that accompanied her on stage, wrapping a warm arm of bravado around cold shoulders. "It’s scary up here," she remarks, noting how hard it is to venture on stage alone. But Stritch is not alone. There’s more love wafting up toward her than Jack Daniel could ever fit in a bottle.
Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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