The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

At The Venue at 35th...

A Dark Portrait of Marilyn Monroe
Opens Norfolk Summer Play Fest

The first Norfolk Summer Season Play Fest, an ambitious schedule of new plays, opened Memorial Day weekend with Best Always, Marilyn Monroe, a somewhat disturbing drama by Virginia Beach resident Kathleen McBlair.

This nearly one-woman play—a single actor occasionally appears as both of Marilyn’s two ex-husbands—takes us behind the glamorous facade of America’s foremost sex symbol to reveal a woman tormented by a serious bi-polar disorder.

Addicted to pills, alcohol, and terminal insecurity, McBlair’s Marilyn is almost a total victim of her own stardom. The play, therefore, is as much a meditation on the dark side of glamour and fame as it is an imagining of the inner demons tormenting a particular, insecure Hollywood star.

Though there are many funny lines, there were few laughs in the nearly full house on opening night, May 27. The drama is, in some ways, almost too real. It’s my guess that many in the audience were struck with both pity and terror, seeing parts of themselves in Marilyn’s need for continuous applause to give herself worth. After all, we all need applause. Marilyn Monroe just needed it in a very big way.

Still, there are moments when Marilyn is not overwhelmed by her stardom or her insecurities and whips off some pretty sharp observations on the world she inhabits as an archetype, a living icon. More of these in the play would be welcome, reminding us more often that this is a very smart woman who is not fooled by the fools around her.

Two of those fools are her husbands, baseball star Joe Dimaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. Dimaggio is insanely jealous of Marilyn’s sex appeal to just about every other man in the developed world. Miller is overwhelmed by her need for constant attention and reassurance while he’s trying to write weighty scripts about the human condition.

It would have been interesting to know more about the inner workings of both these men’s minds and motivations. For example, both Dimaggio and Miller find self-justification in characterizing Marilyn as the dysfunctional one while we in the audience notice that they have their own serious delusions and blind spots.

But exploring them isn’t playwright McBlair’s concern here. Her concern is Marilyn.

Eventually we realize Marilyn is more at home in her own imagination than she is in the outer world. Her ego is entirely too fragile to navigate through the hazards of other egos bristling with complexes of their own.

Her own imagination is most accessible with the help of pills and alcohol, which are, of course, her downfall. McBlair doesn’t let us see her die, as we know she did in “real life.” She simply exits, drunk and sedated as she throws us the play’s last line, “Today’s the day my daddy’s coming to get me.”

Read that as you will.

Without doubt this is a strong play that could speak to a wide audience because it connects so strongly with our shared collective fantasies of who we Americans are—or wish we were. Those fantasies are shaped by Hollywood. For better or worse, we, like Marilyn, cannot easily distinguish between life as it really is and life as we live it through our movies.

Marilyn Monroe, even today—fifty years after her death—is the reigning goddess of that hugely influential medium, and McBlair’s play captures the high price a girl must pay who is rare enough to arrive where she arrived. The tragedy is that it doesn’t seem to have been her fault. Her fate, yes. But not her fault.

Jennifer Lynn Nott-Martin plays the disintegrating Marilyn with a real spark of authenticity, but the role is daunting—practically a two-hour monologue with layers of psychological complexity—and she could have used more than four weeks’ rehearsal to make it fully her own.

It would be unfair, therefore, to criticize the actress for some of the more awkward mannerisms and transitions in her rambling, drunken monologues. Better to point out that in many places her impersonation is quite credible—she talks like Marilyn (for the most part), she looks sufficiently hot, and, most important, she makes clear her character’s tragic dilemma as an international sex symbol whose longing for normalcy—love, family, peace of mind—eludes her with the force of a damning judgment, turning her mythic American success story into a paranoid nightmare.

Paul Costen is not as successful in his dual portrayal of Dimaggio and Miller, who often merge into the same character in manner and voice. Some of that may have been the writing, and there is some symbolic value in the effect. But the overall impression is that Costen also needed more time to refine his interpretations. He is, however, an imposing male figure on stage, which carries a built-in punch to the point that Marilyn is a victim of male dominance, in her career and in her personal life—all because she is so damn beautiful and sexy.

Males in the audience are justified in squirming.

Aliki Pantas, a recent graduate of Old Dominion University’s drama department and director of many Hurrah Players’ youth productions, makes her debut directing adult material with this ambitious piece. She replaced an ailing Phil Odango after beginning rehearsals as his assistant. It hardly needs stating that she rose to the occasion, though, like the actors, could have used more time to smooth out rough edges, including some halting sound cues.

A running crew, which included Venue producer Patti Wray, efficiently swept through scene changes. And the theater’s expanded lighting system has practically erased the dark spots the stage was previously known for.

The only problem I saw with the play itself was an overwriting of Marilyn’s outbursts of self-loathing, repeating her attacks on self and others in the same words too often for my taste. More attention to her wit and self-humor throughout might relieve that weight while also developing a more fully fascinating character.

Best Always, Marilyn Monroe plays tonight, May 28, and next weekend, June 3 and 4. All shows are at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 469-0337.

The Summer Play Fest will continue at The Venue June 16-19 with Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales by Denise Stewart, while the Generic Theater will offer Wanderlust, by Brad McMurran and Jeremiah Albers, June 17-26.

Further Play Fest productions at The Venue and the Generic are scheduled throughout the summer, joined by Little Theater of Norfolk in mid-July with two staged readings of plays in pre-production development.

Check the theaters’ websites for more details, which this column will report as they happen.