BWW Reviews: BITCHSLAP! at Macha Theatre Sparks with Davis/Crawford Pairing
by Darrin Hagen
directed by Odalys Nanin
Macha Theatre, WeHo
through June 17
By the time you leave Darrin Hagen's Bitchslap! you'll either hate or adore two of Hollywood's legendary divas, namely Bette Davis - the actress and Joan Crawford - the movie star. Both left a trail of indelible marks by which to be judged. They were bitchy, glamorous - well, at least Crawford - fiercely prepared - well, at least Davis - overbearing, and always clamored for good press. Ta da! In comes Hedda Hopper, one of the bitchiest, most well-dressed, most obsessively efficient and most overbearing reporters old Hollywood had to offer. Not two, but three queens! Hagen's campy piece is not without its flaws, but will surely entertain you and actually make you perk up your ears to hear a thing or two about Davis and Crawford that you may not have known. That's right, Darrin Hagen has done his homework and very well researched his stars, so movie buffs should be more than pleased. Now onstage through June 17 at the Macha Theatre, ladies and gentlemen, Bitchslap!
Did I mention that C. Stephen Foster is playing Bette (thaaaank you!), Michael Taylor Gray old Crawfish and pretty Therese McLaughlin Ms. Hopper? One lady sandwiched between two men - oops! don't mean to be crude or dirty - but she does play referee between the two drags when they leash out to slap each other, and this is perhaps quite like the real Hopper, one of a chosen few who managed to call the shots in their company. Foster's hilariously delicious style is way over the top, which suits Bette to a tee; Gray's is the direct opposite: he underplays, making Crawford sickeningly sweet - she's so gracious, couldn't you just puke your guts out? - so they're a heavenly match. McLaughlin's Hopper is cheerily direct and to the point, she's the # One gossip columnist and they'd better be good and tell her some delicious lies or their careers are next to over, if she has anything to say about it. So, of course, Davis and Crawford treated Hopper like a sister or mother hen; they wined, dined and stroked her as a means of keeping their press images glowing to sell tickets and make the suitshappy.
Odalys Nanin has lovingly directed the play, and it is crystal clear that she relishes every ounce of the diva that was Davis and Crawford. Her greatest and tightest staging comes in playing out the scenes fromWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She places them - Blanche (Crawford) in a wheelchair and Jane (Davis) serving her a tray - upstage in silhouette in front of the large movie screen that otherwise serves to show movie clips intermittently throughout the play. When Jane was out of Blanche's bedroom, Davis is placed way behind the screen in silhouette to allow her plenty of space to rush around the screen in a tizzy as only Foster can achieve like a hurricane in heat as she unwillingly answers the call of Blanche's obnoxious buzzer. It all looks like the original black and white film. Hagen has also achieved his greatest writing with these scenes. For example, Davis and Crawford stop the action several times causing several takes just because one hates the way the other has delivered a line. Crawford didn't think Davis could copy her voice so insisted on dubbing it in herself. When Davis finally finds just the right slap for Crawford, which thrills her to pieces, she wants to take the scene again... and again. A scream! The beginning of the piece which fills in Davis' and Crawford's individual backgrounds before coming to work together at Warner Bros. is informative but much less fun. Even some of the scenes where Hopper sits between the two in restaurant hangouts like the Brown Derby are somewhat theatrically laborious, as nothing really happens. Little tidbits of gossip, nothing more! But... the three actors and director do their irreverent best to keep it all moving forward with bravura. The writing does at times fall short; it is unquestionably at its feastly best when Davis and Crawford are bitching it out and clawing at one another, raw confrontations that gay audiences will pay royally for and... have come to expect from their diva queens.
Avid fans of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford will love Bitchslap! There's a terrific video montage of film clips of both stars at the top that shows in great detail just how much slapping actually took place in many of their films. This is a fun, fun, fun evening. Don't expect Long Day's Journey or Virginia Woolf, but one thing's for certain: it may be just too, too much entertainment for one's own good. So, be warned and for reading, a wholehearted ... thaaank you!