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STAGE REVIEW : STARS STRUGGLE TO SHINE IN ‘LEGENDS!’

Times Theater Critic

Mary Martin and Carol Channing on the same stage! Is that box office or what? Why, they almost wouldn’t need a play.

That’s the thinking behind the “Legends!” package at the Ahmanson Theatre, and it’s wishful thinking. It’s not enough to put two great stars--all right, legends--together. You have to give them something to do .

James Kirkwood’s comedy does have a promising point of departure. Carol and Mary are two screen queens of a certain age who are down on their luck, although madly pretending to be otherwise. A chance for a Broadway comeback comes along, but there is a hitch. They would have to work with each other. And they can’t stand each other.

Carol thinks that Mary is the world’s biggest phony, with her Little Miss Perfect manners. Act with her ? I’d rather mop floors. Mary thinks that Carol is the world’s tackiest trollop, with no manners at all. Act with her ? I’d rather be dead!

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The reader can take it from there. Indeed, he will have to, for it’s too much for Kirkwood. Given the problem of how to turn these two vixens into bosom buddies (at least for the run of the play), he’s able neither to devise a plausible action that brings them together as human beings, nor--which would have been just as acceptable: we are talking comedy here--to give them such priceless things to say that we forget about the plot entirely.

Take a look at Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” to see how a deft playwright manages an evening that’s essentially nothing but two funny ladies shooting each other down. Perhaps Kirkwood knows “Fallen Angels,” for he, too, offers us a comic maid and a scene where his heroines get tiddly.

The funny maid here is a black woman named Aretha (Annie-Joe) and the tiddly scene comes in the second act when Carol and Mary start nibbling some hashish brownies that Aretha’s relatives have left around. This results in some aimless vacuum cleaning on Mary’s part that is sort of cute, but nothing you couldn’t see any morning of the week on a rerun of “I Love Lucy,” more crisply done.

Meanwhile Carol’s voice drops even lower and she has a vision of her childhood, with slight “Mommie Dearest” overtones. Mary has a confession of her own, and this brings them together, two survivors determined to show ‘em. At the end, Mary even shows the New York Post photog her panties. We don’t believe it.

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An earlier silliness is the arrival of a guy in a tuxedo (Eric Riley) to deliver a birthday message. Shortly thereafter he has shed his tuxedo and is doing a Chippendale’s routine around the flustered Mary. This scene might work as the topper of an uproarious farce, but here it looks dragged in to distract our attention from the fact that not much is happening between Mary and Carol, whom we were hoping would be a little more vicious somehow. Only later do the wigs start to fly, and they never fly furiously enough.

The stripper, I should mention, is black--underscoring the show’s not-very-pleasant reliance on what used to be called watermelon humor. The pretense is that Aretha is so hip that she can do a takeoff on the Petunia type of maid and it’s all good fun. The reality is that she’s playing an ’86 update of Petunia, and the laughs are just as condescending to blacks as they ever were.

There’s an unpleasant strain to the humor throughout. Some of the zingers are good bitchy fun--some pull you up short. “Stop it, Aretha, this is no joke!” “Neither was Beirut.” And if that doesn’t cast a pall, how about the line where Mary, high on brownies, talks about the glory of a rocket lifting off and igniting. Has anybody at the Ahmanson been following the news lately? “Oh, dear,” Mary seems to be thinking as she loyally puts herself through the play--"If only I could write.” Her best moment, oddly, comes when she’s delivering a passage of twaddle from one of her most saccharine movies. The words are ridiculous, but the voice and the conviction are enormous, and you know that you are indeed in the presence of a legend.

Carol’s attitude is more what-the-hell, and her relaxation is a great help. “You know who would really pull them in at the box office in this play?” she’s asked by her potential producer (Gary Beach) over the phone in the prologue. “You mean . . . besides me?” she says, an incredulous Tallulah. Obviously the possibility has never occurred to her that anyone else would pull them in at the box office.

Carol’s wig and her costumes (by Freddie Wittop) are ghastly, though--again, almost to the point of malice. One of the problems of “Legends!” is that everybody involved with it, including director Clifford Williams, is too bright to respect it. Is there a play doctor in the house?

‘LEGENDS!’ James Kirkwood’s comedy, at the Ahmanson Theatre. Director Clifford Williams. Scenery Douglas Schmidt. Costumes Freddy Wittop. Lighting Thomas Skelton. With Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Gary Beach, Annie-Joe, Eric Riley, Don Howard, Tim Johnson. Produced by Ahmet E. Ertegun, Kevin Eggers, Robert Regester (for EE Ventures), Cheryl Crawford and Pace Theatrical Group, in association with Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes March 22. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.

1 line of 30p


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