THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN

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Written and performed by Joanne Hartstone

Directed by Vince Fusco

We all know fame has its dark side. Some show business luminaries reach the pinnacle of stardom only to topple to tragic depths, others simply fade with time. For many aspiring actors though, success proves elusive, and Hollywood can be a very lonely place for those who remain stuck on Obscurity Boulevard. In an affectionate, if flawed tribute to the screen sirens – and wannabes – of yesteryear, dynamic writer-performer Joanne Hartstone puts her considerable skills to work exploring the emotional hills and canyons of 1940’s Los Angeles.

The story begins in Saint Louis, where little Evelyn Edwards is born into a working-class family. After the death of her mother and the collapse of the stock market, Evelyn and her father are destitute and have to move to a “Hooverville” community. Eventually, Dad’s fortunes improve and the family departs the shanty town for a room in a comfortable home. The landlady is fond of playing the piano, and Evelyn learns to sing and dance. She spends her pocket money at the pictures, and soon learns all about the lives of the great leading ladies. She even develops a morbid fascination with starlets whose lives ended sadly, like Jean Harlow, and Peg Entwistle (who actually did jump off the Hollywood sign).  World War II brings a boost to the economy, and Evelyn’s father hears that Los Angeles is “about to become the boomtown of all boomtowns”. The timing couldn’t be better. Evelyn is 18, comely, and ready to try her luck in show business. Now known as Evie, the enterprising young ingenue takes a job as a studio messenger and dances with GI’s at the famous Hollywood canteen, goes on auditions, takes dance lessons, and rubs shoulders with a number of Hollywood notables. Yet somehow the doors to stardom refuse to open for her. Getting past the gatekeepers will require a sacrifice: one the girl from Missouri isn’t sure she’s willing to make.

Hartstone’s writing is concise and vividly descriptive, packed with images that evoke the bustling atmosphere of golden age Hollywood. Her well-researched script is populated with entertaining archetypes, including real life figures like actor Alan Hale, studio exec Jules C. Stein and the infamous Scotty Bowers, a pimp who catered on the downlow to both gay and straight celebrities. Plotwise, though, some of the show’s potential goes untapped. We’re told that things don’t end well for Evelyn’s father, who appears to be mixed up in some shady business. And the young actress herself dips her toe into the L.A. underworld. Yet the play ends before these darker plot elements have a chance to cook. It’s a puzzling choice. If Evie’s life is like a movie, why not make it a film noir?

As a performer, Hartstone and embodies both the vulnerability of a struggling artist and the independent moxie of the quintessential Swing Era dame. However, she needs a bit more guidance from director Vince Fusco, who should bring out the subtler notes in her performance. Most of Evie’s lines are delivered in the same high vocal register, with a melodramatic warble added for emphasis. At first the affectation makes sense: Evie knows she’s something of a cliché: a naive Hollywood hopeful playing the part of Naive Hollywood Hopeful. It’s only natural that she imitates the stylized speech patterns of the heroines she admires. Over the course of 70 minutes, though, the conceit wears thin. A softer, less affected approach might have played better in the Cino Theater’s intimate space. Despite these missteps, Hartstone’s warmth and charisma shines through and she is clearly a talent to watch. Unlike her alter ego, she really does have the skills, sensuality, and drive to become a star. With a little more trust in her gift, and in her audience, she could be ready for her close-up.

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN continues through January 21, 2018 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets) New York, NY 10003. Telephone: (212) 254-1109.

Tickets: https://www.smarttix.com /Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&DateSelected=&SalesEventId=7047

UP THE RABBIT HOLE

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Written by Andy Halliday

Directed by G.R. Johnson

Like many autobiographical works, Andy Halliday’s tale of love, addiction and recovery is raw, honest and brave. It also, in places, suffers from the lack of objectivity that affects many writers as they attempt to mold their life experiences into dramatic narratives. There is plenty to like about UP THE RABBIT HOLE, including a strong cast, but both directorially and scriptwise, it’s in need of further development.

Young Jack Harris (Tyler Jones), is having trouble maintaining control of his life. Having moved to New York to pursue a career as a dancer, he now finds unable to work due to an injured hamstring. With no Plan B, Jack finds work as a cater waiter, but most of his earnings go to feeding his worsening cocaine habit. His drug buddies include the glamorous but untrustworthy Timothy (Quinn Coughlin), who purports to be straight but enjoys sexually-tinged roughhousing with Jack. Jack’s adoptive mom Helen (Laralu Smith), though well intentioned, cluelessly feeds her son’s addiction by giving him money. Clearly Jack’s lifestyle is a recipe for self-destruction. Thankfully, though, a glimmer of optimism arrives in the form of a letter confirming that Jack’s biological mom has been located and is eager to meet him. Jack travels to Boston, where Angela (also Laralu Smith) welcomes him into her home. The reunion is a happy one, not least because Jack discovers he has a brother. Bradford (Andrew Glaszek), who is gay and has fought his own battle with addiction, is able to offer Jack a kind of empathy and assistance that his adopted family can’t give him. Upon returning to Manhattan, though, Jack falls back into his toxic behavior patterns, nearly derailing his healthy relationship with theater director Robert Maltin (Peter Gregus). A particularly traumatic event threatens to send Jack into an irreversible downward spiral. But thanks to his newfound support system, it appears there may be hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box.

Director G.R. Johnson keeps the actors emotionally honest, but has trouble blocking some of the scenes. There’s too much bouncing around in the scenes where Timothy toys with Jack, which dissipates the frightening tension. Other parts of the play seem overly stagnant, as in the scene when Brad, upon meeting Jack for the first time, stands still for several minutes with his arms crossed: a puzzling image for a guy who’s supposed to be welcoming his long-lost brother into the fold. The double casting of Laralu Smith as both Helen and Angela also poses problems. Smith attempts to individuate the two women without resorting to caricature. But ultimately, the moms just aren’t different enough. They also feel somewhat underwritten as characters. Both mothers get to tell their stories, but no tears are shed, no remorse is shown, and we never really learn how either mother feels about her son’s sexuality. They also never meet, despite a request from Angela to do so, which leaves a narrative thread frustratingly unresolved.

Despite its unevenness, though, UP THE RABBIT HOLE manages, at times to be deeply moving and tenderly funny. We can’t help rooting for Jack, especially with the endearing Jones in the part. And the relationship between Jack and Robert is handled with candor and delicacy, both in the dialogue and in the acting. If the same level of excellence could be matched throughout the show, UTRH would go from a very good production to an unforgettable one.

UP THE RABBIT HOLE continues through October 15, 2017 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003. Tickets: http://tix.smarttix.com/Modules/ Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=6848&DC=