BWW Reviews: Consummate Actress Annette Bening Brings RUTH DRAPER To Vibrant Life at Geffen
Renowned actress Ruth Draper (1884-1956) defied description, often referred to as a monologist, a recitalist or diseuse. She wrote her own monologues about women, composites of those socialites she met in New England and Manhattan at the time, and in the beginning of her acting career performed them in parlors and drawing rooms to the acclaim of such celebrities as Eleanor Roosevelt and Noel Coward, among countless others. There was never a hint of feminism nor was there a political slant of any kind. Nor were there any particular morals to be relayed; Draper just presented her women as she saw or imagined them, carrying on in familiar surroundings or holding court with total strangers. Regardless of where she was, each woman was uninhibited, assertive and accessible. Draper's ability - as writer and actress - to make them vibrant and alive was uncanny. Most famous among the monologues are The Italian Lesson and Doctors and Diets, two of which are presented on the Geffen stage by Annette Bening in an 80-minute piece aptly titled Ruth Draper's Monologues, now through May 18.
Bening has conceived the evening and directed herself, not always a wise choice for an actor. Does she need a third eye? Hardly. She is a breed of performer, perhaps as Ruth Draper was...who knows what she's doing and does it realistically and full-out with intelligence and supreme skill. It would behoove young actresses to take a look, analyze every move, every vocal inflection, every gesture. She is a master class in fine acting ...on the page Draper imbued her women with desires of poise and character - "Be somewhere before you start."...Bening is most definitely there and has it all, down pat. Every turn of the head or movement of the hand has meaning, as she knocks each moment out of the park, in rapid succession as if she were competing in a tennis match with her mind set on winning. Take Doctors and Diets, for example, where she sits at a small table in a restaurant addressing three others in her company nonstop and constantly turning left to right or back to front trying to catch the waiter's eye or to charmingly greet a bevy of passers-by with some quaint expression of praise, like "I love your hat. It's divine!" Exhilarating to watch! And the diets that these ladies are on: the turnip diet, raw carrots diet and 11 lemons diet, sound too ridiculous to be believed but were most likely for real. And the doctors' absurd cures? Like the woman associating completely with the color purple to find her self-worth? Too funny! The humor in all the work comes out of character or situation; there are no funny lines or schtick exhibited here.
The last piece The Italian Lesson is just as delightful with an upper class woman lounging in her boudoir reading from Dante's Inferno in Italian while she is trying to organize her incredibly overbooked day with her maid, her cook, her children, her husband, and even her illicit lover over the phone. A phone conversation in which the woman gives a few suggestions on how to redo an original painting is hilarious. Within her workaholic schedule, does she really have time for her inner self, a book she is promoting for the book of the month club? Time - as Draper puts it - to realize things!
A Class in Greek Poise, a short treatment of overweight women and how exercise builds character and A Debutante at a Dance in which a girl tries to do some primary introspection are the two shorter, lesser-known pieces that serve as introductions to the longer, more memorable Doctors and Diets and The Italian Lesson.
In spite of the fact that these are period pieces - the 1920s through the 1950s - it is amazing to observe how attitudes and human behavior remain unchanged. Women still gossip about diets, their weight, exercise, their doctors, men and self-worth... with sheer abandon! Draper was surely ahead of her time.
As the play opens Bening sits at a makeup mirror center stage, which moves to the back of stage left when the action of the play begins, and she makes all five costume changes in full view of the audience. Takeshi Kata has designed a simple set with a lovely green theatrical outer curtain, and Catherine Zuber's costumes are spot.on especially the period dresses with their matching hats.
This is a delicious evening of theatre. Annette Bening and her expert craftsmanship bring Ruth Draper's characters up close and personal for your thorough enjoyment. The detail of Draper's writing and the meticulous execution that Bening presents will keep you engaged and titillated throughout. She never misses a beat. Go, go, go!