I’d say the audience is in the
palm of Elaine Stritch’s hand from the first words of her glorious one-woman
show at the Public, Elaine Stritch at
Liberty . The lady comes on singing-what else?-”There’s No Business Like
Show Business” in a relaxed, jaunty rendition promising sweet and bitter
ironies. Dressed in a white shirt and black tights (to show off her great
gams), her appearance suggests a certain timelessness, like a miscast Peter Pan
or a chic clown from the ages in a ladylike string of pearls. Then she stops
singing the buoyant Irving Berlin showbiz anthem for Mermanesque troupers and
looks out at us, taking life’s measure through sardonic eyes. “It’s like the
prostitute once said,” she begins. “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs …. “
Ms. Stritch’s stairs in the show are represented by her only
prop, a high stool, which she tends to drag around with her on the empty stage
of the Newman Theater at the Public, as if-the lady obliquely suggests-dragging
her ass round the country, town to town, show to show, even with a turkey that
you know will fold. She’s 76, for heaven’s sake! But forget that. Ms. Stritch
is ageless, a masterly performer of the old school, which is the only school
worth attending. The red-velvet, gold-tasseled curtain enfolding the empty
stage like a comfort blanket is the apt nod to her roots in traditional musical
theater. But Ms. Stritch is her own rasping invention, and if we don’t know
that, we don’t know anything about theater.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty
might have been subtitled “An Actor’s Life,” and the many ups and many downs of
the hard, rewarding life of this Midwestern convent girl are extraordinary.
She’s right to describe herself in the show as “an existential problem in
tights.” She’s always been exceptionally smart, of course-maybe too smart for
her own good. She’s the only actress I know of who critiqued the lunatic
performance of a fellow actress when she was onstage with her at the time. (It
was during a doomed road-company production of The Women with Gloria Swanson). She’s a great storyteller, giving
us the feeling that she-and we-won’t be able to resist one more for the road.
“Elaine, I never thought I’d say this,” Judy Garland told her one time after a
binge till way past dawn. “But goodnight!”
Ms. Stritch’s weakness for the
sauce is no secret, and she isn’t shy about it here. She’s too intelligent and
honest not to tell us the score. “O.K.,” she explains breezily. “As long as
we’re spiraling downward …. ” She’s confessional, but not particularly maudlin.
She kicked the booze 14 years ago, when she nearly died. Commonplace stage
fright and fear of aloneness were the cause. Ms. Stritch reminds us how awesome
terror can become onstage, where the art of public solitude is the highest
peak. She tells us amusingly about performing with a fellow actor after she’d
given up the comforting support of a drink or two before each show. “You mean
you’re going out there alone ?” he
In one of the surprising delights of the evening, the number that
she sings to mark her baptism, at 13 years of age, into the transforming,
intoxicating pleasures of a martini is a love song, “This Is All Very New to
Me,” as dopily, potently sentimental as all great love songs:
This is all very new to me
This is all very fine
This is so sunny-like, sort
Now, it was said about Ms. Stritch 40 and more years ago that her
vocal chords made a sound as if they were wearing cleats. Her voice isn’t
conventional, true. But like Noël Coward-her early champion, who became a
friend-she may not sing the best, but she knows how to. Her line readings here
are impeccable. The lyrics to the song that made her famous-”Zip,” Rodgers and
Hart’s immortal homage to strippers from Pal
Joey -are freshly minted:
English people don’t say
clerk, they say clark.
Anybody who says clark, is
She’s funny about herself, too. Only the young and naïve Ms.
Stritch could have thought that “heterosexual” was another word for “gay.” Her
romantic life was late developing. There was the early drama-school infatuation
with Marlon Brando. “I want two things from you, Elaine,” Mr. Brando told her
on a date. “Silence and distance.” She was gaga over Rock Hudson. (“We all know
what a bum decision that turned out to be.”) She lived with her adored husband,
John Bay, for 10 years, “until carcinoma-maximella-metastasize-iosis fucked everything up.”
Elaine Stritch at Liberty ,
directed by George C. Wolfe, who understands his star’s spirit of anarchy, is
billed, somewhat bizarrely, as “constructed by John Lahr”-Mr. Lahr is the New Yorker ‘s cultivated drama critic-and
“reconstructed by Elaine Stritch.” Who constructed what, or whom, is beside the
point. The point is, this is Ms. Stritch’s life, and she almost missed it. I
should say that Act II dips a little and might have been trimmed here and
there. But where? The indomitable Ms. Stritch would still be performing past
midnight, if they’d let her. The unexpected encore of “Something Good” from The Sound of Music , of all treacly
things, just about comes off. Not
with a bang, but a ditty.
Ms. Stritch’s real and superior muses are the bittersweet Noël
Coward and Stephen Sondheim. Her version of Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People
Travel?” is wittily the best precisely because she resists imitating the
clipped cadences of Coward. Her desperate “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company belongs to her, of course. It’s
often imagined that Mr. Sondheim’s hymn to survival from Follies , “I’m Still Here,” belongs to her, too. In fact, she’s
never sung it before. Yet it could have been written for her.
“Not long ago, I spoke to Stephen Sondheim about ‘I’m Still
Here,’” she tells us during another high moment in the show. “And I told him I
had heard women in their 60′s, 50′s, 40′s
sing ‘I’m Still Here.’ I’m still here? Still here? I mean, where they have been ?”
Well, that’s when I fell in
love with Elaine Stritch. And when she sang the song to enduring in bum times
and good times, it came from a bruised and touching place, a life lived. And at
the last defiant, tumultuous chorus, she did the most astonishing thing. My, oh
my! She started to jump up and down! She was jumping for joy!
Christ knows at least I was
And I’m here!
Look who’s here!
I’m still here!
We couldn’t be gladder.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.