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The Sadness Behind the Wit of Dorothy Parker

<i> Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Calendar</i>

The first time Laurel Ollstein used a Dorothy Parker short story for a theatrical monologue in college, everyone was impressed. What new writer is that, they asked.

“I was always looking for a new audition piece because I was bored with the same 10 that everyone did,” said the actress, 35. “I was really surprised that nobody had ever thought of making Dorothy Parker theatrical because she is so theatrical.”

Now Ollstein has assembled a collection of Parker’s quips and writings--and tied them together with her own words--in the one-woman show, “Laughter, Hope and a Sock in the Eye,” which she has been performing at the Burbage Theatre since August.

“When I first started reading her stuff, I didn’t know anything about her life,” Ollstein said. “In fact, at first, I was just going to use her material. But when I started researching her life, I thought, ‘Oh, this is too good.’ ” In the 70-minute show, Ollstein reveals Parker’s roller-coaster life: high school dropout, toast of literary society, big money, no money, an estrangement from her parents, abortion, miscarriage, alcoholism, two husbands, numerous lovers and five suicide attempts.

“There’s a very depressing side to her,” Ollstein said. “I touch on it in the show, but I really want to examine it more; I’m still working on it. The other thing that attracted me to her was that whole thing of being a woman and being a writer: competing with men in business, on their level--especially when she did, when there was no support from anyone. I found it fascinating because I’d often felt it myself: ‘Yes, I’m your equal. But I’m also a woman, and I want to get taken out and treated nicely.’ ”

In the show, Parker grouses that out of a lifetime of stellar writing, she will be remembered for nine cheeky words: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

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“She wanted to be an important writer and was never happy being a success with her witticisms,” Ollstein said. “It wasn’t enough. To her, it was like fluff. And it was too easy--like if something’s easy, it can’t be good. She also wrote very slowly and agonized over everything; it took her like six months to write a short story.”

Although Parker yearned for the prestige of a serious novelist, when she was given an advance to write a novel, she panicked. Said Ollstein: “The publishers kept sending her letters, and she was in Europe, going ‘I can’t do this.’ ”

Parker’s private life was equally problematic. Her first husband, Eddie Parker, came back from World War I addicted to morphine. A 30-year off-and-on relationship with her second husband, Alan Campbell, was strained by his bisexuality and the self-destructive behavior of both. “She had so many men in her life--and not one healthy relationship in the bunch,” Ollstein said. “At the end, she was horrid: alone, living in a little hovel, bitter, awful, screaming obscenities at people.”

“I’d read two biographies of Parker and always thought she was a very sad lady,” said Michael Keenan, who directed Ollstein’s show at the Burbage. “Laurel’s material caught that, without dwelling on it. I think the show’s been so successful because it’s extremely accessible. The material is witty but heartfelt.”

When she died in 1967 at age 74, Parker left her estate to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., naming her friend Lillian Hellman as executrix. But Ollstein believes that Hellman “felt robbed of the royalties and dealt her a kind of posthumous stab in the back” by refusing to let any of Parker’s work be done. Parker’s ashes were not found until after Hellman’s death, turning up in her closet, where they had lain in a nondescript container for 20 years.

That discovery eventually led to the creation of the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden at the Baltimore headquarters of the NAACP (King’s beneficiary). The timing turned out to be opportune for Ollstein, who’d been performing “Sock in the Eye” in Minneapolis. The head of publicity for the NAACP flew in, saw the show and promptly invited her to the dedication. “It was an incredible experience,” said the actress, “burying her ashes, being with all these people who knew her and performing my show in front of them.”

After years of immersion in her subject, the actress remains awed by Parker’s talent--and fortitude.

“She had to be ‘on’ all the time,” Ollstein said. “I mean, she was 20-something when she was the most-quoted woman in America. Jeez, how do you live up to that? Every time you open your mouth, everyone expects you to say something brilliant. And you’re just this terrified little girl inside.”

Ollstein got a taste of that herself: “I’d sit at the typewriter and say, ‘Who the hell am I, writing for Dorothy Parker? She was the wittiest woman in America.’ I felt the kind of intimidation she must have felt.”

In spite of that trepidation, Ollstein (who has two other plays to her credit) is enjoying her foray into writing. Raised in West Los Angeles, she spent several years after college acting in the Bay Area before moving to Minnesota at 28. “I was very successful there as an actress, doing great--then suddenly there were no parts for me,” she lamented. “I hated being so out of control. I just can’t wait for someone to say, ‘OK, you’re cast; now you can be creative.’ So I wrote this as a showcase for myself.”

Resettling here last year with her 4-year old daughter, Samantha, Ollstein (who also teaches acting to children at Center Stage L. A.) has found the homecoming a mixed bag emotionally. “I’d never gone for it here before,” she said.

“As a teen-ager, I went to Lee Strasberg’s studio and took acting classes and was very into it. But I didn’t want to do television and film,” she said wryly. “I was a real snob. Now, of course, I want to do television and film. I want to write and act. I want to do it all.”

“Laughter, Hope and a Sock in the Eye” plays at 4 p.m. Sundays and 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through March 31 at the Burbage Theatre, 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles. Tickets are $10 to $12. (213) 478-0897.


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