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Understandably Unbalanced 

That's what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard."

"If you use studiously correct grammar, people suspect you of having homosexual tendencies."

"In her performance, Katherine Hepburn ran the full gamut of emotions, from A to B."

Those are three of my favorites zingers, though Lord knows there are plenty of other contenders. Dorothy Parker was master of the wisecrack. Even her verse tends to be built around wisecracks -- albeit metrical and rhymed and trailing an urbane, ironic ruefulness like a wisp of cigarette smoke in a dim bar, late at night.

She seems proud of and trapped by her reputation as a wit. When a spiteful George S. Kaufman, who coveted the same laurels, claimed all clever remarks were invariably attributed to her, Parker countered:

"I'll never seek to take the credit/ I'll just assume that Oscar said it."

The comparison with Wilde is telling. He was, in a sense, everything that she aspired to be. For there is a profundity and a classical groundedness in Wilde that underlies his provocations and antic posturing. His epigrams not only evoke laughter, they bear thought. Parker's are marvelous little darts that land right on target (and often have a drop of poison on the tip). But they don't resonate.

"Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses."

This famous squib captures Parker's dilemma perfectly. Apparently, she grew to loathe it. In Dorothy and Alan, a two-character bio-drama about Parker's life (currently at le chat noir), there is a scene towards the end of the second act where Parker is reduced to seeking unemployment pay. The woman at the government office recognizes her as the author of the "glasses/passes" line. Salt in the wound, indeed, for a would-be "serious" writer.

The play was written by actor Michael P. Cahill, who takes the part of Alan Campbell, Parker's second husband. Campbell met Parker in the early 1930s, when she was already a celebrated wit, drama critic and writer of short stories and light verse. He was a somewhat successful Broadway actor and aspiring writer, 12 years her junior. They married, divorced and then re-married. Among their many collaborations in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system were The Little Foxes (based on Lillian Hellman's play) and the original version of A Star Is Born (for which they received an Oscar nomination).

Although two names appear in the title, Dorothy and Alan is clearly a Parker-centric universe. She is the driving force of the action. We see almost everything through her eyes. We hear almost everything in her words. Janet Shea, who has created a panoply of singular women over the years in solo turns as Emily Dickinson, Lillian Hellman and Diana Vreeland, takes on the central role. Once again, Shea gracefully straddles the various tasks at hand: reciting texts, imparting facts and communicating the intricacies of character. We are treated to Parker's sardonic bonhomie, while at the same time we are made to feel her brittleness and frustration.

Particularly effective is a sequence that shows her reaction to Alan's induction into the Army during World War II. Parker is deeply stirred by watching these young civilians taking their first awkward steps as democratic warriors. And she explodes at a wealthy suburbanite who makes a cynical comment on the proceedings -- a comment all the more infuriating because it is so close in tone to Parker's more customary mood.

Parker's personality is, in fact, so central and dominating, the play seems more like an interrupted monologue than the study of a relationship. Cahill the actor is left a bit stranded by Cahill the playwright. If Alan Campbell is a compelling individual, we never quite grasp why. If he is ineffectual, we never come to a sense of that flaw and its consequences.

But despite being a bit lopsided, Dorothy and Alan is an enjoyable evening. Parker pours out her bon mots like a treasure chest of glittering costume jewelry. And it's always interesting to see the practical struggles and emotional storms hidden behind a name that has passed into legend.

The production is tastefully staged and fits comfortably on the smallish stage of le chat noir. A great variety of locations are suggested, more to our mind than to our eyes. Sue Gonczy's excellent lighting greatly increases effectiveness of the set.

Ultimately, the pleasure of spending time with Dorothy Parker is much like the pleasure of watching an old movie. A sophisticate and a working girl, she seems to embody in her real life so much of what Hollywood put on the screen. The wisecrack. The stylish gesture. The jaded idealism. Everything. Except, of course, the happy ending. -->

click to enlarge Michael P. Cahill (as Alan Campbell) and Janet Shea (as Dorothy Parker) make an uneven match in Dorothy and Alan.
  • Michael P. Cahill (as Alan Campbell) and Janet Shea (as Dorothy Parker) make an uneven match in Dorothy and Alan.


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