For many years I reviewed movies as well as theater. The main difference between the two, as far as I can remember, is that movie reviewers are allowed to like more trash. (Sometimes, in fact, great reputations are build by espousing trash.)
All this is by way of introducing "The Big Love," a one-person play in which Tracey Ullman plays Florence Aadland, whose daughter Beverly, at the age of 15, became the mistress of Errol Flynn, then a surprisingly youthful 48.
The title comes from a memoir by Florence, a contemporary equivalent of the letters of the 17th-century Mme. de Sevigne to her daughter; Proust called the letters the greatest love story in French. Aadland's writing, a lofty version of Modern Screen prose, has remarkable stylistic integrity. The play, by Brooke Allen and Jay Presson Allen, uses much of Aadland's text, but often coarsens its oddly high-minded tone.
The play, though bizarrely funny and sometimes touching, largely treats Florence as a joke. We seldom sense the pathos of this lonely alcoholic reliving the grotesque events of her adored daughter's life.
The drama is also weakened by slides projected against the back wall, which break the mood and suggest we are in a slideshow rather than a confessional. Also, the actual images of Flynn seem silly and tacky compared to Flo's idealized remembrances.
The strength of the evening is the wonderfully talented Ullman. With three blond curls rigidly in place atop her high forehead, a smile fixed with similar rigidity on her small face, she resembles a Kewpie doll from a "seconds" outlet. Her voice is as pinched as her smile, the perfect instrument for Florence's telling banalities.
Because the material does not give her much variety, some of the best moments are visual gags, particularly a gratuitous episode in which she tries to cut sealing tape with her teeth. Neither this play nor her foray into Shakespeare last summer has really tapped Ullman's formidable stage potential.
To get back to trash. We haven't had much in the theater lately. But, from David Mitchell's dreamy scrim map of homes of the stars, to his perfectly designed Hollywood bungalow to Ken Billington's splendid evocation of the golden L.A. sunlight to Ullman's exuberant performance, I had a giddy enough evening to hope trash has a future on Broadway.
The National Enquirer (or perhaps, more accurately, "Hollywood Confidential") has finally made it to Broadway. Well, at least we get its prying checkout-counter spirit, which seems very alive and moderately well in the new one-woman, one-note play, "The Big Love," starring the multi-delicious Tracey Ullman, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater.
"The Big Love" is gossipily concerned with a footnote to a footnote to a Hollywood legend. The legend was the swashbuckling swordsman Errol Flynn - and the footnote was Beverly Aadland, the teen-age starlet who was his mistress for the final two years of his "wicked, wicked" life. And the footnote to Beverly was her mother Florence - a stage-mother who makes Mama Rose in "Gypsy" seem a rank amateur.
Immediately after Flynn's 1959 death from a heart attack in Vancouver - with Beverly in attendance - the Aadlands, mother and daughter, harried by gossip-writers, hit some hard and scandalous times, culminating in Beverly having a young Hollywood bit-player, Billy Sanshu, rape her and then commit suicide.
Florence, accused but acquitted of using her daughter for purposes of prostitution, nevertheless was in 1961 found guilty of child neglect, and find $500, or 60 days in jail. Florence cannot raise the ante - and so on this play's chosen summer day in Los Angeles, boozy and bleary, she is packing up, getting ready to surrender to the authorities, and waiting in vain for a phone call from her daughter.
The play by Jay Presson Allen (who last season wrote and directed "Tru" for Robert Morse) and her daughter, Brooke Allen, is based on the book "The Big Love," which Florence wrote with a journalist ghost-writer, Tedd Thomey, and which tells the whole story (or some version of it) of the juicy affair between Flynn and Beverly, totally in a spirit of maternal justification.
Flo, as played by the buoyant and charming miracle-worker Ullman, emerges not as a monster, which conceivably is what she was, but as a woman of high good humor, determined, spunky, trying to do her best for her adored daughter.
She tells us straight off: "The day she met Errol Flynn my baby was a virgin." Indeed, she later adds: "The first 15 years of her life I kept that kid in a cellophane bag." But what could this woman - who admits to fantasizing herself as Myrna Loy - do against a real-live sex symbol? And how could the daughter, described a little hopefully by Flo as "a young, blonde, intellectual Rita Hayworth," resist?
But this is Flo's turn. She is the star of her book, and, of course, the solitary occupant of her play. It is - like "Tru" before it - a monologue, but there the similarity ends. Capote was a fascinating and witty man, and his chirpy story a mini-tragedy whenever it was not a mini-comedy.
With Flo Aadland we are here being invited to laugh and sympathize not by what she says, but from what she is. We giggle at Flo - her dirty, "pardon-my-French" language (raunchier than in the book), and her silver-screen dream-factory fantasies, pretensions and aspirations.
David Mitchell's setting is clever and amusing, Jay Presson Allen's own staging adroit, and Ullman - with a snazzy Texas drawl and luridly looking years older, like an oddly sleazy Lucille Ball - is astonishing, whether she is informing us about destiny, kvetching about life or even just dancing and lip-syncing to Nat King Cole.
Unfortunately the play - which condescendingly aims at a kind of camp awareness - never transcends the banality of its subject or the tinsel triviality of its tunnel-visioned viewpoint to tell anything real or moving about Hollywood dreamers. As it is, when all is said and done, who cares? I must admit - despite my wild admiration for the dauntless Ullman - I didn't.
"For the first time in my life, I was absolutely speechless," says Florence Aadland, the Hollywood mother played by Tracey Ullman in "The Big Love," as she recalls her 15-year-old daughter's fateful night of violent sex with Errol Flynn in 1957. If "The Big Love" is any indication, the first time Florence Aadland was speechless was also the last. In this one-woman play that has washed ashore on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater, Ms. Ullmann natters on for two hours, a not inconsiderable proportion of which is devoted to joking descriptions of rape. She refers to the penis by two different affectionate nicknames in the first half-hour alone. '
"The Big Love" was directed and co-written (with Brooke Allen) by Jay Presson Allen, the creator of "Tru." Apparently its mission is to do for Ms. Ullman and Florence Aadland what "Tru" did for Robert Morse and Truman Capote. Like Mr. Morse, Ms. Ullman needs a career break but no introduction, at least to those who have admired this young English comic actress on television, in films ("I Love You to Death") and in last summer's "Taming of the Shrew" in Central Park. But who, you ask, is Florence Aadland?
Not necessarily someone you would invite to breakfast at Tiffany's. She was a sometime cocktail waitress and fulltime Hollywood stage mother whose jailbait daughter, Bev, carried on with a washed-up Flynn in the final two years of the movie star's life. After Flynn's death, Florence exploited her child's vicarious brush with tabloid celebrity in the 1961 book that gives this show its title, a tell-all memoir that achieved cult status with the help of a rave review by William Styron in Esquire. But that was 30 years ago, and neither the scandalous Aadlands nor, arguably, Flynn himself have had the longevity of, say, Fatty Arbuckle. Even their 15 minutes of fame came up 10 minutes short.
Yet Florence Aadland is given the same elaborate stage treatment as Capote. Like "Tru," "The Big Love" greets the audience with a kitschy front curtain -- in this case a period map of movie stars' homes -- and ends with its down-but-not-out protagonist's gallant exit to face a new day. In between, the heavily made-up Ms. Ullman sips drinks, slews campy gossip and attempts to justify a pathetic, loveless existence higher on self-destruction than achievement. For occasional dramatic incident, the phone rings or the record player plays or the lights dim for an often blurry slideshow of scrapbook photographs. For sight gags, Ms. Ullman tries to tie up some Venetian blinds with a pair of nylons in Act I and to cut some packing tape with a corkscrew in Act II.
As it soon becomes apparent, the "Tru" formula could not be more ludicrously misapplied. Unlike Capote, Flo Aadland did nothing of interest, pimping for her own daughter excepted. In a script as conspicuously padded as Ms. Ullman's costume, the anecdotes about waitressing prove trance-inducing and the closest thing to a witty punch line (at the end of a sexual anecdote) is "Let those puppies loose!" Under these circumstances, a theatergoer cannot be blamed for flipping through the Playbill to find out who in his right mind would produce such a script, and in this case, the list includes Home Box Office, which presumably has the inside track on any future television adaptation. If no one else is getting a big laugh out of "The Big Love," perhaps Showtime is.
Television can improve the play, at least, simply by reducing its physical scale. The realistic set that confronts the audience at the Plymouth is not the East Side penthouse, with glittering river view, of "Tru" but a soiled, rock-bottom Hollywood bungalow that is magnified by Broadway demands to VistaVision proportions, all painted an institutional, Necco-wafer shade of green. In order to accommodate the slide exhibition, this eyesore is dominated by its rear wall, a green monster to rival Fenway Park's, and after two hours of staring at it, you may feel as if you're being held in high-school detention.
So may Ms. Ullman. The people who coaxed her into "The Big Love," especially at this length and in this large a house, are not her friends. Hideously outfitted with a platinum perm, a synthetic wardrobe and turquoise earrings that match her eye shadow, the actress looks like Tammy Faye Bakker and sounds like Lucille Ball taking a wild stab at impersonating Dolly Parton. Five minutes of such clowning might be tolerable, but what audience wants someone like this in its face all night?
Ms. Ullman's complete failure to create a richer character or, failing that, to hold the stage by sheer personality becomes, by default, the biggest drama in "The Big Love." Not only is the comedy strained but so are the loud, mawkish tears meant to make Flo a sympathetic sort of Nathanael West lonely heart, innocently victimized by the false Hollywood gods of glamour and fame. All but winking at the audience to acknowledge her and our superiority to this white-trash drunk, Ms. Ullman condescends to Aadland instead of inhabiting her and sometimes puckers her lips in lame imitation of Dana Carvey's Church Lady on "Saturday Night Live" at those moments when Flo's most vulgar gestures or stupid lines are meant to cue patronizing guffaws. "It must mean something , right?," she announces to the audience just before her final exit.