Let us now praise Linda Lavin, stage tigress. In everything from "Collected Stories" in Los Angeles to "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" in New York, the woman best known to millions for slinging hash on, and as, TV's "Alice" has brought her unerring theatrical technique to comedy, drama and various admixtures of the two.
Now at the Goodman Theatre, "Hollywood Arms" sporadically comes to life every time Lavin lights the fuse under a wisecrack, mutters a retort in an expressive aural equivalent to a raised eyebrow, or lets someone have it for real. Lavin portrays Nanny, a flinty, no-bull Christian Scientist at odds with postwar Hollywood and its tantalizing promises. In Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett's old-fashioned memory play, which has been given a most impressive premiere by director Harold Prince, Nanny is a reluctant Texas transplant based on Burnett's grandmother.
"Hollywood Arms" is at once Burnett's family story and a fictionalized imagining thereof. Whatever's true or partly true or wholly untrue doesn't matter. What matters, and what hurts, is its tonal uncertainty. This is a disappointing, wobbly piece, never resolving the issue of how rosy or harsh to make its story, how to bounce one mood off another.
Alternating between a cramped Hollywood apartment and the building's rooftop overlooking the Hollywood sign, nicely evoked in both sepia tones and full color by Walt Spangler (scenery) and Howell Binkley (lighting), the play improves--markedly--in its second act. But for a sharper, more rewarding exploration of these themes, try the Burnett memoir "One More Time," which was the basis of "Hollywood Arms."
Hamilton, Burnett's daughter, died earlier this year of cancer at age 38. Even without this painfully recent loss, Burnett is dealing with some painful matters in "Hollywood Arms," chiefly the legacy of alcoholic parents.
Act 1 is set in 1941. Louise (Michele Pawk), a Hollywood wanna-be without a clear sense of direction, is joined by her mother, Nanny (Lavin), and Louise's young daughter, Helen (Sara Niemietz). Louise's ex, Jody (Frank Wood, who richly deserved the Tony Award he won for "Side Man") remains on the blurry-eyed periphery of his daughter Helen's life.
Louise, meanwhile, has moved on to other dubious relationships, although one suitor, Bill (Patrick Clear), represents solid financial prospects. While the adults bicker, drink, sing and wonder whether the relief check will last the month, Helen plays part-time nursemaid to Nanny and escapes to the roof when she can. There, she re-enacts radio shows and plays "pretend" with the neighbor kid, Malcolm (Nicolas King, prime candidate for a lifetime Neil Simon Fellowship). Malcolm's mother, Dixie (Barbara E. Robertson), is the apartment landlady. Already, that's a pretty full character roster.
In Act 2, taking place 10 years later, older, UCLA-bound Helen is played--winningly and easefully--by Donna Lynne Champlin. Her half-sister Alice (Emily Graham-Handley) is growing up alarmingly fast, while the girls' mother descends into alcoholic bitterness.
A couple of sharp scenes reveal what "Hollywood Arms" could yet become. When Champlin re-enacts an old Danny Kaye routine the play suddenly snaps into focus. We see, in effect, Carol Burnett being born. The dramatic peak comes later, when Lavin (one flaw: a wandering dialect), Wood and Pawk tear into a convincing clash.
Too often, however, "Hollywood Arms" lurches from one short, sketchy scene to the next, unable to generate the texture, tensions and give-and-take of real life. One second someone is deathly ill with a fever; the next, three generations of women are parlor-harmonizing. The way composer Robert Lindsey Nassif ("3hree") scores "Hollywood Arms," it's sometimes on the verge of musical comedy, or more often, a sentimental film version of itself.
Watching this play, you sense that the writers, out of an honest, shared impulse, wanted to temper some of the more sour memories touched upon in Burnett's memoir. At present, the play feels overpopulated--it's a six-character work trapped in the body of an 11-character one--yet glossed-over. Burnett has certifiably stageworthy material here. But it needs focusing, as well as the secret ingredient in any family story, however loosely autobiographical: fearlessness.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune theater critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times