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Don’t Look Back 

Hedda and the Pussycats

Wednesday, May 22 2002
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Photo by Christina Radish

WAITING FOR BETTY FRIEDAN, ANN MARCUS' FREEwheeling adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, holds a certain fascination in how it reflects on the playwright, her world and her motives of creation. For Marcus is an Emmy Award­winning octogenarian, a female pioneer in television who co-created Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, among other staples of the era. She had to confront what it means to be a professional writer in a world where the very word profession was attached almost entirely to men, while wife was the word that applied to women. Her play is about those assumptions, and the pressures that resulted from them.

The ideas behind Betty Friedan were percolating in the early '60s, when Marcus wrote a version that was given a workshop production at Desilu Studios. The press notes comment that she "finally found time to complete a work she contemplated at the beginning of her career." This tidbit may be more interesting than the production itself, accounting for the play's retro aesthetic and why it feels like a window opening onto mid-20th-century pop culture. Betty is no Hedda, but, in its defense, neither does it try to be. It is not about who we are, but who we were; not where we are, but how far we've come. And Marcus tells her story with a gentle and open heart that beats or clunks, depending on the scene.

The play looks back to 1958, to a living room in a Pittsburgh suburb where the entire action unfolds. A housewife and fledgling playwright named Amy (Elizabeth Mann), whose writing habit intrudes on innumerable domestic chores, keeps her writing table, typewriter and play all hidden from her husband, Arthur (Michael Harrity), in the living-room closet -- in what a student of Ibsen might call an obvious allegorical motif.

To keep things in perspective, Amy does not pout, even though she's a stand-in for broody Hedda, and even though she's confronted with the daunting task of rearing two precocious boys (Josh Jacobs and Jesse Phillips March) and sustaining an emotional life with her pompous, well-meaning idiot of a husband -- that's my judgment, not hers. While Hedda is prone to lines like "I'm so bored" (though also married to a pompous, well-meaning idiot, she's without children), Amy is comparatively chirpy. But that's not saying much: Even Saint Joan seems chirpy compared to Hedda Gabler.

If you remember Marlo Thomas in That Girl -- a sitcom on the air when Marcus was breaking in to TV -- you'll have a sense of Mann's perky, brunette Amy (sans the raspy voice), struggling to write between washing socks and entertaining hubby's colleagues with dinner for four. But never is heard a discouraged word . . .

Until her friend and failed playwright Walter Wright (Derrel Maury) blows in from New York City, by which time Amy's play has been optioned by none other than David Merrick, which her husband doesn't know about yet, because Amy (who could also be called Cinderella) hasn't had the nerve to tell him, fearing his reaction to her wanting to take a few weeks off from housecleaning to get the play into shape for Broadway. Nor does Arthur know about Amy's premarital fling with Mr. Wright -- a stand-in for Ibsen's wild and woolly Eilert Loevborg.

What will become of Amy's manuscript? Will she burn it to save her marriage -- the way Hedda burned Loevborg's brilliant opus, ostensibly to protect her mediocre spouse? A pushy agent (Barry Jenner) wants Amy to simply sign it away, to take Merrick's money and run -- or rather, to remain in Pennsylvania and get back to washing socks. That would certainly please Arthur.

But Walter encourages Amy not to sell out, to keep ownership of her work (hence, of herself), and to take all the time she needs for rewrites, preferably in a vacant New York apartment free from distraction -- except, perhaps, the distraction of visits by him. Which raises two questions: Who is Wright? And who is right?

There stands poor Amy, a descendant of Virginia Woolf, in a room not of her own that's populated with human magnets. How does one even start to read one's own moral compass in such a place, to negotiate the tugs and pulls between family, career and possible lechery? Amy's a harbinger of the women's movement to come.

The beauty of Marcus' play is how it captures the ache of an irresolvable dilemma. Its folly lies in its made-for-TV resolution, which I'm not giving away. Even within Marcus' sitcom universe, Amy's agony rings as true as that of any character in works from Caryl Churchill to Lisa Loomer to Suzan-Lori Parks. To suggest, as Marcus does, that such agony can be popped like a bubble is emotional and historical fakery.

Stu Berg directs a four-cylinder production that fires on two, wobbling between scenes of affecting tenderness and disaffecting ineptitude, though I saw it in preview. Besides, Marcus' glimmer of history shines through.

PUSSYCAT DOLLS LIVE IS A CABARET SHOW, LIKE A USO gig, that takes over the Roxy on Thursday nights through May. It's performed by a bevy of sultry, dolled-up, cut-and-pasted women (headlined by Carmen Electra and Christina Applegate on the night I attended), while a small crew of sailor boys hover at the stage's lip -- hollering, hooting and trying, in general, to generate some voltage that might not otherwise be coming from the stage. This "ode to the pinup girl" (and other '40s vestiges) should really be titled Waiting for Camille Paglia, as it's purportedly about women's powers of seduction over men, and how that power has evolved over the decades since WWII. This is all Robin Antin's invention, directed by Kristin Hanggi, who won a bucket of awards (including Musical of the Year from this newspaper) for her staging of bare last year at the Hudson.

Hanggi provides a charged, smoky atmosphere and the promise of sweaty grunge as the audience enters the club. But through two dozen musical numbers, most of them lip-synched, choreographer Antin keeps retracing the same steps -- e.g., dancers standing with their backs to us, legs spread, suddenly plunge from the waist, revealing peek-a-boo underwear, again and again. The moves have the requisite snap; the result is as glossy and impenetrable as a magazine spread. Posing as an ode to the pinup, with her mix of power and vulnerability, Pussycat Dolls Live is really about the power of the well-oiled machine. I can't think of anything more relentless or less sexy.

The production has been strutting for years at the Viper Room. Its club origins render it a progeny of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; however, unlike Hedwig, it's scrubbed clean of a story, social consciousness, twists of perversity or anything else that might sustain interest after Dita Von Teese has dunked herself into a huge plastic martini glass, or the testosterone effect from torn fishnet stockings and exposed corsets has worn off.

In fact, Larry Flynt's Hustler Hollywood boutique across the street is mentioned in the opening remarks, and there's a full-page ad in the program for "Laser Smooth" -- in case you're inspired to remove unwanted hair after the show. Now there's the women's movement in the 21st century, the power of choice at work.

G FOR BETTY FRIEDAN | By ANN MARCUS At Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Second Floor, Studio City | Through June 30

PUSSYCAT DOLLS LIVE | Created by ROBIN ANTIN | At the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood | Through May 30

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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