In the era of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, it's hard to believe anyone would waste time arguing whether theater should be meaningful or entertaining. But people used to. Lillian Garrett-Groag revisits the antique debate in her play The Ladies of the Camellias.It's a talky play, overwritten at places, but it explores the question in a novel way. A Russian radical, equipped with a pistol and dynamite, holds hostage two of the reigning divas of the late 19th century, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. The women are in Paris for productions of Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias.Ivan, our angry young Russkie, demands an end to brightly plumaged productions and artificial emotion in favor of relevant, vital theater that will be used as an organ of social reform. If he doesn't get what he wants, Ivan is ready to blow them all into the epilogue.
Garrett-Groag isn't a Bernard Shaw in terms of wit or intellectual discourse. But her play, written in the late '80s, is still a fine effort with a valid point: now more than ever, we need a theater that concerns itself less with placating our big, fat selves than with prompting us to use our brains. Anything short of that is a disservice to the artists, the audience and the theater itself.
That intellectual freight is delivered quite well in this Long Beach Playhouse production directed by Robert G. Leigh. Many directors would have compromised what this play is about in favor of gassing up the gags and comic situation. Any play that features two ego-driven divas, their cuckolded leading men, a bomb-toting Russian anarchist, snakes named Rimbaud and Verlaine, and a man-eating cheetah is prone to the worst kind of inflation onstage.
Leigh must have been aware of those hazards. How else to explain why this production is so out of balance on the other side? Rather than big and brazen—which would be bad—this production is small and static, which is also bad. It sounds predictable in a play that deals in such big ideas, but this production is frustratingly un-fun. The comedy misfires, the actors seem epoxied to their marks, and characters rich in scripted eccentricities appear flat and virtually character-free onstage.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the dueling leading ladies. Actresses should relish these roles as pigs do dung, deliriously happy to get a chance to pillory—and pay homage to—the vanity and vivacity that characterize so many great performers. Neither Susan E. Taylor's bloodless Sarah Bernhardt nor Elyse Ashton's neurotic Eleonora Duse rises above a one-note performance. It's possible that Juan Ramirez's enthusiastic Flavio Ando only seems big in this staging because everyone else is so small; Tom Moses' Benoit actually has character.
A few grand gestures and this lifeless production could have been saved. That would have underscored the play's very important ideas—and it would have given us a living example of the very compelling point at the play's center: theater that really works combines the body—laughter, tears, feeling—and the mind. Together, we call that theatrical soul, something distressingly absent from so many plays and productions, this one (frustratingly) included.
The Ladies of the Camellias at Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Oct. 3. $12-$15.