by Carol Burnett and Carrie Hamilton
directed by Lewis Hauser
through December 17
To my knowledge this is the West Coast premiere of Hollywood Arms by Carol Burnett and her daughter the late Carrie Hamilton, based on Burnett's well written best-selling memoir One More Time. There was a reading at the now Carrie Hamilton Theatre of the Pasadena Playhouse a few years back when the theatre switched names, but not a full-fledged production. The Kentwood Players do quite well in bringing the slice-of-life dramedy to life, now onstage at the Westchester Playhouse through December 17.
When it played Broadway, Hollywood Arms was attacked by critics as being a sanitized version of what life was like in poverty-stricken Hollywood of the 40s and early 50s, and some went as far as saying it would not hold water were it not the autobiography of Carol Burnett. I do not agree entirely. Yes, of course, interest is piqued because of Burnett's celebrity, but the play, despite Burnett's obvious love of her dysfunctional family members, plays out realistically. In the play Carol is called Helen (Francesca Farina, age 10; Laurel Andersen, 20). In Act I she leaves Texas at an impressionable age chaperoned by her Nanny (Alice Lunsford) for the purpose of taking up residence in Hollywood, California where her alcoholic mother Louise (Cynthia Rothschild) has been struggling for a few years to make it as a writer. Helen's father Jody (Samuel Huntington), now divorced from Louise, also lives in California, but is much of the time unavailable due to his bouts with alcoholism and consumption. Hollywood Arms is the rundown apartment building where Louise and now Nanny and Helen reside in separate apartments down the hall from one another. With Louise and Nanny both on welfare, there is little for poor Helen to do, apart from going to school, but to accompany her grandmother to the movies for bargain matinees and hang out on the rooftop with apartment manager Dixie's (Valerie Ruel) son Malcolm (Mason Bromberg), a young boy close to her age. He is really her only friend, and she passes the time peeking in at neighbors through their apartment windows and doing her radio show aloud, with a bevy of characterizations. As a young girl, Helen had a talent for impersonation, and 10 years later, where Act II picks up, at UCLA, Helen majors in theater arts. Most who have read One More Time know of Burnett's struggles living with Nanny's hypochondria and stinginess and with Louise and Jody's recurring alcoholic bouts. Her young life was hardly normal, so her escape into a world of fantasy made complete sense. It seems redundant to go into the rest of the story, as the whole world knows of her tremendous talent and how it made her practically an overnight success in New York on Broadway and on TV's Ed Sullivan and Garry Moore Shows.
Lewis Hauser has lovingly directed his cast and staged the piece with fine pacing. More a drama than a comedy, Hollywood Arms is oft times painful to watch and its characters, though recognizable, complex and tortured. Burnett and Hamilton have laced the piece with standard tunes like "Chasing Rainbows" and Kate Smith's "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain" which add a nice soothing touch and even some comic relief from time to time. Rothschild is superb as Louise, not holding back an ounce of the dismal depression that plagued her, as a wanna.be writer failure. Lunsford is precious as Nanny, who whines constantly, but beneath the exterior is likeable and funny. Farina does well with the young Helen, but it is Andersen who simply soars as the grownup Helen, just bursting with a blazing talent. Her monologue from the movie theater where she recreates every character in the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film is sheer delight. Praise as well to Huntington as the weak Jody, to Ruel as the loyal Dixie and to Joseph Roman as Bill, Louise's steady, caring boyfriend. Emma Hatton also does fine work as Helen's younger sister Alice. Michael McGee's set design of the dingy apartment is spot on perfect, as are Jayne Hamil's appropriate period costumes.