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Ruth Draper (1884-1956) became the most influential of solo dramatic performers in the first half of the last century. Her carefully crafted characterizations of high-society types set the template for the plethora of single-performer shows ever since. Draper presented new shows of her works on Broadway some 10 times in 35 years, and toured extensively in the U.K. as well as internationally, sometimes in conjunction with her equally talented nephew, the dancer Paul Draper.
A supplely histrionic comedienne with a singular flair for vivid writing entirely through monologue, though often persuasively suggesting dialogue, Draper became so legendary that while few any longer remember her performances, it requires a certain ballsy presumption to attempt her extended sketches in competition with the wealth of contemporary critical praise that survives her. Annette Bening undertakes the somewhat daring enterprise of resurrecting four of her 40-odd pieces with a brisk, no-nonsense confidence.
The potential pitfalls are many: Draper writes of and incarnates a privileged class that no longer exists in remotely the same form she depicts, although it is present with a vengeance in its newer manifestations, a perception not lost on an opening night audience in Westwood, watching a star engage in what could be wrongly dismissed as audition exercises. Draper has been so pervasively imitated across generations of successors that her innovations have become commonplace, and it could be tough to overcome the sensation of encountering a phenomenon of insects in amber.
Notwithstanding, Bening attacks the monologues with both humility and gusto. These represent an opportunity for both savage caricature and earnest empathy, and while Bening does uncannily capture the tone of Draper herself (on the evidence of her late-in-life recording of the climactic tour-de-force aria, “The Italian Lesson”), she also suggests some of the self-aware timing Rosalind Russell used to bring to her stylings on the self-absorbed. Draper constantly improvised on her established texts, and so too Bening is unafraid to bring on her own individual take while respecting the historic integrity of the rather delicately wrought satires. She understands that the heart of Draper’s portraits of chattering women resides in how they listen (or more accurately, don’t listen) to those with whom they converse.
These antique baubles can veer toward the arch or the precious, and while they may be classic in their own way (and certainly centrally important to the development of performance art), they are inevitably somewhat dated. Bening smartly walks the narrow line between acknowledging these studies for what they are and resisting the temptation to pump up their continuing relevance. She has the taste to treat them with admiring restraint, and the connoisseurship to do so faithfully. They require a combination of respect and abandon, and Bening brings both in right measure.
Whether playing an obsequiously positive poise instructor imparting positive reinforcement to her corpulent clients, an ambivalent and insecure debutante in the midst of her year of coming out, the domineering restaurant patron at a table of women whose diets forbid them to eat, or most poignantly and horrifically, a middle-aged dowager of appalling insensitivity continually interrupting her lesson in Dante’s Inferno to peremptorily order about her many children and servants, Bening clearly delineates the range of types with sharply observed body movements and inflections.
These stylized mannerisms help elicit considerable compassion for the limited choices available to women of a certain prominence and attainment during an age that constrained the potential of even those privileged with material resources with a paucity of meaningful outlets for their individuality. These are shallow, oftentimes maddening people for whom it can be hard to sympathize. But it is sometimes impossible not to.
Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through May 18)
Cast: Annette Bening
Director: Annette Bening
Playwright: Ruth Draper, based on “The Art of Ruth Draper” by Morton Dauwen Zabel
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
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