On the one hand, there was this handsome figure of a woman, Barbara Rush, a screen actress with whose work I was totally unfamiliar. On the other hand, there was this numbingly unreeling piece of claptrap, a one-woman show entitled "A Woman of Independent Means," to which she was lending her gracious presence in her Broadway debut last night at the Biltmore.
The actress was portraying a Dallas lady named Bess Steed Garner, the middle and last names representing her two marriages, from her girlhood at the turn of the century to her death in 1977. She was doing all this in a comfortably appointed library-sitting room. And she was doing it not in a genuine play, but by reciting, with various shades of emotion as she moved about, from an endless series of letters mailed to friends and family members over the years. The astonishing thing was not that she had managed to memorize more than two hours of talk, but that amount of disjointed hogwash. The lady obviously has a mind like a steel trap.
The script has been assembled by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey from a recent novel composed of letters suggested by her grandmother's correspondence. Whatever her ladylike reserve, grandma had to be a good deal more interesting than the highly articulate but unremittingly shallow woman set before us as if she must surely be a model of indomitable 20th century womanhood.
Besides being a relentlessly charming meddler in the affairs of others and a shrewd manipulator of her friends and family, in particular, Bess is a correspondent who sees wit in her carefully shaped sentences where there is none. Deaths (two husbands and two of her three children by the first), births (they include several grandchildren and a couple of great-grandchildren), travels (Bess was a passionate world traveler), and one or two mild flirtations are recounted, along with mundane family matters and, in one example of her maneuverings, the sweet acquisition of a cousin's house (she suggests the woman would be better off in a convalescent home) when her own burns down.
As the effervescent Bess passes, in nicely gauged steps by the star, from youth to middle age to old age and senility, and with various stages in between, one begins to wonder whether the author was subtly defining the nature and career of a woman she had learned to detest. But no, "A Woman of Independent Means" is clearly an encomium. Bess, whom I quickly grew to dislike, is obviously intended to embody those Christian virtues that represent America at its best. Or, at least, privileged America. For, setting aside the heartaches and tragedies that afflict all classes, Bess was nothing if not privileged.
It took eight producers to bring this striking-looking and adept performer our way to characterize at such excruciating length a woman scarcely worth recording for what she reveals of herself in these letters. Each time the elegant actress slipped behind a screen to alter or change costumes in the attractive surroundings, I longed for her to reappear with one or more companions. She might at least have brought her eight producers on stage for her curtain calls. Better luck next time, dear Barbara, once having left smarmy Bess behind for good.
Presumably the basic question to be asked of any event is WHY? We scrabble around for causes, make a few rationalizations and call the result reportage, commentary, criticism or poetry.
I hardly imagine I am going to write poetry about Barbara Rush in A Woman of Independent Means, which, with independence and presumably means, distractingly opened at the Biltmore Theater last night.
It was a positively awful evening in the theater. It was not just a night where you wished you were somewhere else - this happens - but, more, it was the sort of night where you wished your nearest and dearest enemy was sitting in your seat. And paying for it, yet!
I can't start to tell you how awful it was - although later, being a professional, I shall do my limited best. But still that: WHY?
Why was I caged in a seat for 2 1/2 hours, and although it is unlikely it could even happen to you, with no one simply trying to help my boredom.
Miss Rush is best known as a sometime film actress, is now of what might be called the early middle years, and here she is on Broadway in this extravagantly nonsensical travelogue of a nasty woman's life from 1899 until 1977 when, mercifully, but as such interminable length, the old girl finally popped off like a whimpering, deflated balloon.
The whole thing is based by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey on her novel - she says best-selling, although I have never actually heard of it or her, which is doubtless someone's loss - and it concerns the epistolary talents of a peculiarly unpleasant woman.
Bess Steed Garner - the independent means in question - is one of the meanest, most insincere, rude, horrid people (I am being too generous) that you could ever wish to meet. She's cheap, too.
The play - the play, why should I be conned into calling it a play merely because it has the effrontery to totter into a Broadway theater? - is as mean, small and nasty as its protagonist.
Miss Rush, poor Miss Rush, surrounded by a salesroom of antiques, set up by the designer Ron Christopher, spells out this crazy woman's life story in a series of letters written in, supposedly, mandarin prose.
No comment is beneath her but not a single feeling goes felt. This absolutely wretched woman tells us such homilies - but you really had to have been there to have believed it - as: "Life is our only defense against death - I know," and "One life is simply not enough for all the lessons one has to learn." Wow, philosophy. And we only paid for entertainment.
Miss Rush imagines that acting is a state of being. The playwright - luckily I have now forgotten her name, she was never in movies - seemed so incompetent that one idly wondered whether one should call the Fire Department.
As for the rest. Well, the rest are producers, aren't they. Now, someone put up money for this farrago - or at least gathered money in.
The why - the BIG WHY - must stop somewhere within these producing names. They are Messrs. Buckley and Urbanski and James Hansen and Della Koeing, Sandra Moss and Warren Cowan. Also - get this program note - "The producers wish to express their gratitude to Glenn Rose for his cooperation on this production."
Come on, kids! Just let's hear it once for Glenn Rose!
Let us hear it for Tiny Tim, or anyone you care to mention. But trash is trash. I felt sorry for Miss Rush, but she is clearly a lady who takes acting far too seriously for our own good. But why? Even - how?
Into every Broadway season, a little total insanity must fall, and this season's quotient has just fallen, with a thud, at the Biltmore Theater. It is there that brave souls can encounter Barbara Rush's recital, ''A Woman of Independent Means'' - a one-performer show that makes last fall's stultifying ''Peg'' look like a Knicks game.
In this amateur theatricale - billed as ''a play'' and adapted by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey from her own popular novel - Miss Rush spends over two hours reciting letters attributed to a fictional Texas matriarch named Bess Steed Garner. Bess is a selfish but persevering woman whose life extends from 1899 to 1977. During that span, she marries twice, raises several children, travels abroad, celebrates every holiday and witnesses the births, deaths and weddings of many loved ones. She also cultivates a fortune that requires her to attend endlessly to the fine details of stock transactions, insurance policies and estate planning. At one point, Bess almost goes broke - but it is the evening's principal tragedy that she is never so impoverished that she must forgo postage stamps.
Mrs. Hailey apparently sees Bess as a representative figure - a vaguely pre-feminist American woman whose life is both heroic and foolish, giving and selfish. If the letters were written by a writer as trenchant as Willa Cather or Ring Lardner, the various ironies of Bess's existence might be meaningful and dramatic. But the life that unfolds in ''A Woman of Independent Means'' is instead an avalanche of unexamined trivial details, now and then punctuated by melodramatic events and observations seemingly culled from greeting cards. (''Life is our only defense against death'' goes one typical homily.) We never hear the letters that Bess receives from her various correspondents - and, worse, Mrs. Hailey utterly fails to make those friends and family members come alive in the heroine's own epistles.
Miss Rush, a Hollywood veteran, is a handsome woman who tries terribly hard to be ingratiating, models a wide variety of hats and, at the end, affects a stilted walk and thick voice that are supposed to indicate Bess's passage into old age. The performer holds forth from a heavily draped salon that looks like the front office of a Beverly Hills funeral parlor. There are many recorded sound effects to indicate that Bess is traveling by train or boat and, in the tragic passages, that her child has been hit by a car or that her house has burned down. The incidental music, assembled by Henry Mancini, includes the Marseillaise (when Bess visits France) and ''When Johnny Comes Marching Home'' (on Armistice Day).
Perhaps the most bizarre, if not tasteless, moment of the evening arrives when we hear gunshots interrupt John F. Kennedy's Inaugural address - as if to suggest the President had been assassinated the first day of his term. This inspires Bess to write the First Lady a condolence note containing the tearful invocation, ''Courage, chere Jacqueline!'' Death must come to Bess, too, and she tells us that she would like her epitaph to read ''to be continued.'' Given the volume of her mail, the postal service may have to add a new wing to the Dead Letter Office.