Running With Scissors' Mildred Dearest is, of course, all about Joan Crawford and her lust for attention. As Crawford, Brian Peterson's makeup announced that like a billboard right from the beginning. A rim of bright red lipstick as thick as a white-wall tire surrounded his lips, and a precipitously tall and imposing pompadour-meets-ring-curl-bangs wig (like a hairdo Crawford wore in Mildred Pierce) towered over sharply drawn eyebrows. It was a portrait of vanity on steroids.
Scissors' staged biopic began with a tantalizingly racy film introduction and included extended, sometimes overworked, news radio interludes. Some of the best moments in the show centered on Crawford's self-absorption. Peterson somehow mustered a progression of at least eight nuanced expressions of perplexed anxiety as Crawford waited to hear if she had won the Oscar for her 1941 film Mildred Pierce. Of course, she did, and that made her all the more unbearable after years of declining interest at the box office.
The Mildred Dearest story could have been a bit more involved. At times, other characters were not so much victims of Crawford's ego but expected to set up easy punchlines for her. The serial neglect and torment Crawford directed at her adopted children Christina (Dorian Rush) and Christopher (Brad Caldwell), however, was funny. The best confrontation came as young Christina inappropriately flirted with one of Crawford's suitors. The strange three-way dynamic of Crawford abusing Christina while courting men and film roles is the unseemly core of the controversy stirred by the original film Mommie Dearest. The overt competition in Mildred Dearest was at times deliciously funny.
There also were some fun unexpected surprises. Rush sang a strangely creepy version of Shirley Temple's "Animal Crackers in My Soup." And one clever moment came early on as a studio executive (Jack Long) whipped out a wire hanger, getting a jump on the audience's expectations. Unfortunately, Long also played a few of Crawford's paramours (she had four husbands) and that got a bit muddled.
In the past, Peterson excelled as Elizabeth Taylor and the film divas she played, including Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Casting him as Crawford was sure to delight Scissors fans, and he did a great job balancing her glamour and fame with her ruthless ambition and narcissism. But given the previously proven talents of the other players, Mildred Dearest would have been a stronger drama if the story wasn't all about Crawford. — Will Coviello