Tag Archives: Carol Burnett

The Old Friends – Review


What constitutes binding ties? Are they marital, familial or just familiarity? Horton Foote looks to untangle this question in the posthumous premiere; The Old Friends. Set in 1965 outside of Houston, Texas six adults are locked in a combustible and static pattern of interaction. The (often alcohol fueled) attacks and schemes are delivered daily. They may be dressed slightly differently from day to day, but they are the same greed, jealousy and loneliness inspired displays. These displays make for some phenomenal scenes and performances but are difficult to absorb.

Julia (Veanne Cox) is married to fabulously wealthy Albert (Adam LeFevre). Her mother Mamie (Lois Smith) lives with them. The play opens with the family awaiting the arrival of Julia’s ne’er do well brother and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote.) Sybil arrives alone, freshly widowed and destitute. Mamie is distraught but not for reasons one might assume. Her son is dead and so is her plan of living with him (evidently life with her daughter is a virtual living hell, or so we’re told.) Small, stunned, nondescript Sybil is left alone in the living room when tornado Gertrude (Betty Buckley) arrives. In perhaps the greatest character study of pure narcissism ever to hit a stage, Gertrude goes on the most delicious rant about how she’s been treated at the cocktail party. Julia has been hitting on her man Howard (Cotter Smith) who incidentally is the brother of Gertrude’s late husband. There sits newly widowed Sybil looking and being treated like part of the furnishings. She’s better off to be frank, as there is an odd vortex at work here. Unlike Mamie’s reported mistreatment we actually see all the other wretchedness. These people are caught in an interpersonal dance that one might expect on a remote island not amongst people with the means to escape. Julia and Gertrude fight over the same men over and over again. They are not related and have gobs of money. Why are they locked in this mode, dragging everyone in and down with them? It’s not clear.

What is clear is that these parts are written with actors in mind and director Michael Wilson makes the most of that. Betty Buckley’s Gertrude will be the standard for every subsequent performer. It is no easy feat to portray drunkenness and keep a character interesting. Ms. Buckley is riveting and uses her voice (not surprisingly) in the most powerful way. The soft raspy sadness that bubbles up after one too many, the controlled and uncontrolled rage and the lyrical flirtations make for a vocal symphony. Howard (or probably any other human) is no match to her passions and fervor. He is merely there to keep away the loneliness (as we learn in a confession reminiscent of a 3:00 AM Judy Garland phone call) and she will fight to the finish to keep her fear of loneliness at bay. Howard however has been pining for Sybil for years. He seems a bright and interesting guy and it’s hard to see why he’d be holding a torch for such a meek and mousy woman. Perhaps it’s simply the result of thirty years in the presence of Gertrude and Julia. Julia (who seems to go after Howard in some sort of non-sibling rivalry with Gertrude) is loud and boozy as well. She just wants to have a good time and feels everyone is standing in her way. Her wig, physique and mannerisms often hint to Carol Burnett’s poignant portrayal of Eunice. Again, why don’t these people leave? This question hangs in the air as a trip to New York City is cancelled by Gertrude. Why didn’t they just go without her? How does a woman who’s not even related hold the reins so firmly?

We never really discover what the ties are. The ending of the play is so abrupt as to suggest that there are no answers to be had.

The Old Friends is playing (August 20 – September 29) at the Signature Theatre

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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Funny Girl

Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice

‘You’re a funny girl.’ Has that phrase ever been uttered (by a man) without subtext or semi-colon? “And I hate funny girls” or “And you look it too.” Perhaps there are times it is delivered as a compliment, but rarely is it heard as one. It’s probable that Nicky Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif) said it with love and adoration, but it’s an odds on favorite that Fanny (Barbra Streisand) heard it as; “not pretty.” It is not entirely Fanny/Barbra’s insecurities that lead to this interpretation. Women have been derided and ridiculed for being funny since the dawn of time. There’s a chance that Eve ran from the Garden of Eden in shame after Adam ridiculed her for her “one bad apple” joke.

Humor or (gasp) joke telling is masculine. No really, ask any comic trying to get top billing. At the core of being funny is the ability to make people laugh (stay with me on this, it gets less ‘duh’) and ‘making’ people do anything is a measure of powerfulness. Well women aren’t supposed to have power. In fact what women were told for decades (if not centuries) was to look good and listen. If they were to speak at all it was in niceties and affirmations. Early comediennes understood this land mine and went to lengths to mitigate their ‘offensiveness.’ They down played their physicality to create a gender neutral or cartoonish woman. This worked as an immediate physical cue to the audience; “It’s okay, we can pretend I’m not a woman.” Fanny Brice and Phyllis Diller made themselves into physical characters (as did many others.) Ms. Brice had a lovely moving singing voice but is best remembered for playing Baby Snooks. What could be less threatening than a baby? Phyllis Diller was a slim, sleek stylish woman who festooned herself in clown-like garb and used self-deprecating humor.

Things began to change in the late 1960s. Joan Rivers engaged in similar self-deprecating humor, but did so in a little black dress and pearls. There were no fright wigs or juvenile characters, just a fearless gal from Larchmont with a wickedly quick wit. Carol Burnett came along shortly thereafter and blew the roof off. Her show (1967-1978) opened the doors and national minds to the fact that a woman can be outrageously funny, smart and striking. Yes, she played cartoonishly grotesque looking characters, but she also played bombshells. Every show started with Ms. Burnett standing center stage in a striking (Bob Mackie) gown. When she sang (and she did/does so beautifully) it was often in character but not a caricature. Several came after her, these funny women who didn’t apologize for being women. Tracey Ullman embraced a similar format of characters as Ms. Burnett as well as singing and having a striking physical presence.

These examples of progress are not to suggest that we’ve come a long way baby. Comic actresses (versus comediennes) still manipulate her physical image to placate the audience. Think of the ‘funny’ gal on any sitcom and you will find that her look or shtick about her look is at the business of her character. Most often it takes the form of an eating disorder. Binge eating, eating off-brand Mexican snack chips, clearing a buffet; all while staying a size four can be seen on any channel near you. The scripts poke fun at bosom size (’cause that’s funny) or weight struggles or tragic fashion sense. Granted there are male comedians and comic actors whose bread & butter is their sad sack image. But there’s a sense that it’s done with a wink especially when their characters seem to engage with lovely looking women.

There is an ancient and depressing mathematical formula (that surely can be found on a cave wall somewhere): attractive=dumb=desirable and funny=smart=intimidating. Anyone on this earth for any length of time past the parallel-play period can attest to the unmitigated fallacy of this formula. We’ve all met plain dumb women, attractive smart women, we’ve met women who were funny and not so clever (which can be really funny!) and chances are we’ve never been intimidated by humor. But it doesn’t change the fact that rarely does a woman hear “you’re a funny girl” and automatically get a spring in her step. We are simply not conditioned to hear it as a compliment. There are no magazine articles promising us 10 simple ways to crack your guy up. There is no potion, pill or powder being pitched to power our punch lines. It’s okay to be smart (and that’s serious progress) but funny, able to evoke stomach cramps and copious tears, while looking like oneself? We’ve got a ways to go. They are out there, these outrageously funny comediennes embracing their femaleness, don’t get me wrong. But they are in no way celebrated by the masses (and by masses I mean heterosexual men) the way male comedians are. There is still, after all these years, something intimidating about a woman who is not a cartoon, and who can make you wet your pants a little.

I’m so glad we had this time together.

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Posted by on April 27, 2013 in Cultural Critique


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