BWW Review: SIDEKICKED at Cape May Stage
Contrary to popular belief, the fabulous '50s did not end on New Years Eve 1959. In fact, the decade of peace, prosperity, and pop culture ended on April 1, 1960, when America said goodbye to the Ricardos, the Mertzes, and the phenomenon that was TV's "I Love Lucy." While much has been written about film star-turned-television-pioneer Lucille Ball, only a few know the true story of Vivian Vance, who played Lucy Ricardo's best pal and partner-in-crime Ethel Mertz. Playwright Kim Powers attempts to rectify that oversight with his new play SIDEKICKED, now at New Jersey's Cape May Stage.
Vance was 42 years old when she was signed by Desi Arnaz to play Ethel Mertz. The stage actress was dubious about this New Medium of television but the allure of steady work at $450 a week convinced her to give it a try. The first setback was her initial encounter with the show's star, Lucille Ball, who expected a dumpy, dull-eyed character actress. The second was the casting of her co-star and TV husband, William Frawley, a gruff curmudgeon 22 years her senior. Vance later learned that both she and Frawley were not first choice for their roles. Lucille wanted her radio co-stars Bea Benadaret and Gale Gordon as Fred and Ethel, but both were unavailable. Nobody could have predicted that this unlikely group would become four of America's most famous faces, earning Vance an Emmy Award and her place in television history. The decade-long hit came to an end during the first quarter of 1960, when the Ricardos and Mertzes made America laugh for the last time.
SIDEKICKED takes place on the night of their final filming. Vance (played by Tony-nominee Sally Mayes) has summoned her psychiatrist to her dressing room to discuss a nightmare brought on by a pivotal career choice. Desi Arnaz has asked her to do a sequel sitcom called "Fred and Ethel" which, while lucrative, would also mean that she may become typecast and never play anything but Ethel Mertz. It would also mean continuing her working relationship with Bill Frawley, who, even after 193 episodes of tele-matrimony, she still found irritating and disagreeable (to put it mildly). In the ensuing 90-minute mono-drama, Vance vents to her unseen shrink (and us) - painting a vivid picture of the troubled real life of Lucy's best friend and cohort. We learn that Vance came from strict religious family who disapproved of her career choices. We learn that she experienced a form of PTSD after returning from a USO tour, one that led to a nervous breakdown during a Chicago stage show. We learn that she was married three times (by 1960), with her latest husband physically and mentally abusive. We learn all this - and a lot more.
Sally Mayes bears a passing resemblance to Vance, but wisely avoids doing an imitation of a figure that has populated our living rooms for nearly seven decades. Her tremendously likable and colorful performance is faithful to Powers' script, if not the real Vivian Vance, who was likely a darker and less sparkling presence off-stage than is depicted here. Director Roy Steinberg opts instead for a tone that nostalgically reminds us of the legendary sitcom, rather than taking us down the rabbit hole of mental illness and internal conflict. The playwright peppers the monologue with references to Lucy and Ethel's antics and often includes pithy lines of "Lucy" dialogue that fans will instantly recall.
Toward that end, the production design helps immensely. While Vance breathlessly bares her soul, corresponding moments from the TV show are silently projected on the sound-stage wall behind her. Also aiding the tone, costume designer Jess Goldstein dresses Mayes in a drab chenille bathrobe, a wardrobe item frequently seen on Ethel Mertz, but unlikely to be worn by TV star Vance in her private dressing room. By 1960, Vance's continual contract negotiations were successful in assuring that her character was no longer the frowzy landlady of 1951, but as attractive and well-coiffed as Lucille Ball herself, a detail not addressed here.
Powers builds a particularly poignant moment around a single line of dialogue from the series. While attending a luncheon with Lucy and Connecticut neighbor Betty Ramsey, Ethel is feeling her best friend status usurped. When Lucy tries to include her by offering a second helping, Ethel diffidently remarks: "I have sufficient." This ad lib won Vance a gold star on a backstage call-board. The line momentarily resonates with Mayes' Vance as she considers her life and career achievements. She thoughtfully pauses and says "I have, haven't I?" In that line, Mayes and Vance brilliantly coalesce, and Powers and Steinberg succeed in bringing us a moving and memorable portrait of America's favorite sidekick.
SIDEKICKED continues through September 20 at Cape May Stage, 405 Lafayette Street, Cape May, New Jersey. For tickets and information visit www.capemaystage.org or phone (609) 770-8311