James Kirkwood's comedy "Legends" is, at its very least, high camp. As a matter of fact, it's high camp at its very most.
It was tailor-made for Carol Channing and Mary Martin--you can still hear their voices in the written words--which puts a burden on any production of the play. The actors have little to work with except the camp in which Kirkwood enshrined the cast.
This production at Long Beach Playhouse makes a valiant effort under Darlene Hunter-Chaffee's direction to find some kind of reality behind Kirkwood's glitzy guffaws.
The plot is practically nonexistent. Two legendary screen stars are way down on their luck and in their bank accounts. Known for their decades-long feud, they are approached to star in a new off-Broadway play. It's only an excuse for a two-hour exercise in stereotypical show biz backbiting.
References to "The Wizard of Oz" provide gags, along with Cheryl Bradley as maid Aretha in an impression of Butterfly McQueen in "Gone With The Wind," and all the other cliched camp icons.
But it's the rapid-fire zingers that fly between the two faded idols that are the basis of the humor, and fortunately Betty Motsinger (Sylvia) and Kathy Davis (Leatrice), as the sparring partners, don't fall into the easy trap of letting the camp control them. They create characters rooted in honesty and, if their slow delivery in Act I missed some of the yuks, by Act II they were up to speed to good effect.
Davis in particular knows where some of the potholes are, and steps lightly over them. So does Bradley, in a display of restraint that's admirable in the circumstances and gets her deserved laughs. Richard Meese only slightly overdoes the smarminess of sleazy producer Martin Klemmer, but not enough to bollix his monologues.
Alan Harvey is curiously shy as a male stripper who shows up only for further camp, and Michael-Shawn O'Leary manages to out-camp even Kirkwood by playing a policeman as a cross between a Keystone Kop and something the young Bert Lahr would have considered too outrageous.
Why Hunter-Chaffee allowed O'Leary to go as far as he does and kept everyone else within reasonable bounds boggles the imagination as much as it does the production. Maybe the camp got to her just as he made his entrance.
Dave Carleen's luxurious Manhattan apartment sitting room, which Sylvia has borrowed for an all-important meeting about the new show, looks like the real thing, and is elegantly lit in Buddy Tobie's design.
* "Legends," Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday matinee Dec. 12, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 18. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Betty Motsinger: Sylvia Glenn
Kathy Davis: Leatrice Monsee
Cheryl Bradley: Aretha Thomas
Richard Meese: Martin Klemmer
A Long Beach Playhouse production of James Kirkwood's comedy. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Scenic design: Dave Carleen. Light design: Buddy Tobie. Stage manager: Maria Bercovitz.