EmptyPasadena Playhouse (Through Nov. 23)
Dave Rambo has taken the best of Ann Landers' well-known public persona and morphed it imaginatively into her less well-known private life. The result is a lighthearted divertissement with heart that, thanks to an unusually authentic performance by Mimi Kennedy, makes for a pleasant, funny and gently provocative two hours.
In fact, given the nostalgia value of the Landers mystique, and the fact that she continued her column until her death in 2002, there is no reason why this couldn't become a valuable commodity on the touring circuit. Whether Landers' sophisticated language, elegant manners and strongly liberal takes on sexual and political issues will seduce or confuse younger audience members remains to be seen.
Rambo gets a head start by having Landers' writings to draw upon. Using a barrage of the quotable quips and barbs that made Landers' column so popular --lightly leavened by the kind of hip, common-sense answers on a wide range of usually close-to-the-heart topics (including toilet-roll orientation) that made up the meat of her advice -- he gives Kennedy a substantial opportunity to work with the audience (to the point of asking them questions and even advice) and develop by night's end something approaching authentic intimacy.
The play takes place during the evening in 1975 on which Landers makes her fateful decision to go public in her column about her divorce from her husband of 36 years. The subsequent soul-searching is interspersed with recollections of her life before and after meeting her husband, her difficult relationship with her twin sister, Abigail Van Buren of "Dear Abby" fame, and her relationship with and responsibilities to her readers.
Kennedy begins the evening with smart, smarmy poise and attitude embellished with what seem like delightful hints of Lily Tomlin's tight-lipped, squinty-eyed mannerisms from "Laugh-In" days. Writers and other creative types will find much to enjoy in the way Kennedy finds procrastinating distractions, whether eating a box of chocolates or chatting with the audience, before she finally buckles down to finishing her column as the deadline nears.
As the evening goes on, however, and Landers' emotions begin to drain her, Kennedy lets the mannerisms slide to reveal a touching human side. When she reaches the climax of the play -- "The sad, incredible fact is that after 36 years of marriage (my husband) Jules and I are being divorced" -- she demonstrates eloquently why less is often considered more.
One-actor shows are never easy, but this one takes a particular type of intelligence, sympathy, patience and pacing that Kennedy, Rambo and director Brendon Fox, associate producer of L.A. TheatreWorks, manage extremely well. The silent action of the final few minutes draws back the curtain on Landers' grief and resolve without becoming maudlin.
Cast: Mimi Kennedy.
Playwright: David Rambo.
Director: Brendon Fox.
Scenic design by Gary Wissmann;
Costume design by Holly Poe Durbin;
Lighting design by Trevor Norton;
Sound design by Lindsay Jones;
Wig design by Carol F. Doran.