In the hierarchy of theatrical genres, the solo show built around a cultural or historical eminence doesn’t rank all that high. Biographical musing isn’t playwriting. These works are like extended chat shows without the anchor, stimulating for their potted histories and bits of gossip but soon forgotten.
Saffron Burrows, wearing a wig that is in fact wearing her in the first half of “Jackie Unveiled,” which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, has the angular beauty to bring to life a still-young Jacqueline Kennedy. She also has the trim figure and self-protective diffidence of the graceful widow who knows that the fickle and dangerous world is scrutinizing her every move.
What Burrows doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a play. Tom Dugan, the author of “Jackie Unveiled,” has supplied instead a haphazard exhibition. The compilation of material is put together with no more artistic forethought than the photo collage that Jackie, ailing with cancer in the second act, busily prepares to help distract her from her urge to sneak a cigarette.
“Jackie Unveiled” begins on the night Robert F. Kennedy was killed. It’s 1968, and Jackie is still reeling from the assassination of her husband, “Jack,” the country’s dashing 35th president, whose death she helped weave into the modern Camelot legend.
A ringing phone stirs Jackie from bed, but she has already seen the news on TV about Bobby. She pours herself a Scotch, which she laps up despite “the taste of tragedy” it leaves. She smokes, refills her glass and hunts for a photo of “Papa Joe,” the Kennedy patriarch who knew she would be an ideal match for his politically ambitious yet not sufficiently polished son.
On this agonizing night, Jackie can’t help reliving the trauma of her husband’s assassination in Dallas five years earlier. She fears the jackals always lying in wait for her smell blood. She wonders if her children, Caroline and John, would be better off without her. She contemplates ending it all.
Burrows, the appealing British star who was seductively mercurial in Mike Figgis’ underrated film adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and is best known these days for her role on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” flails about the stage like an actor who isn’t given enough to do but recap her character’s story. She overworks the cigarettes and the booze in a desperate attempt to keep herself theatrically occupied.
The audience at moments becomes Burrows’ costar. Jackie directly addresses theatergoers as “my dear, kind curious souls of the future … gazing up at me from the comfortable perfection of hindsight.” She senses their adoration, but what she wants is their understanding. “Will you be my confessor?” she asks.
But the confession that pours out of her is organized on the lines of a scrapbook. “Wait, what was I saying?” she stops herself at one point. “I seem to have lost the thread.”
Funny, I was having the same problem. As titles go, “Jackie Unveiled” is false advertising. Jackie may be really shooting her mouth off tonight, as she says herself, but telling secrets isn’t the same thing as revealing character.
Burrows is trapped not only in a ludicrous wig but also in a cumbersome accent and stultifying Brahmin cadence. This isn’t a private Jackie but a contrived public version for the commercial stage. She’s wearing pajamas in the show’s first half, but with her strained formality she might as well be answering questions from Edward R. Murrow on national TV dressed in Oleg Cassini.
The fault originates with the writing. Dugan throws out sensational tidbits about Jackie’s personal life — an affair with RFK, a case of chlamydia from JFK with tragic consequences, a marriage to Aristotle Onassis born out of terror, her father’s sexual inappropriateness — without deepening interest or insight.
The production, directed by Jenny Sullivan, thrashes about on François-Pierre Couture’s elegant set conjuring Jackie’s Fifth Avenue apartment. Burrows’ performance is too presentational to draw us in. It’s almost as if she has been directed to be in constant motion out of fear of boring the audience.
Empty gestures, however, turn out to be equally dull. Burrows’ portrayal undergoes an impressive physical change in the second half, when the character (now in her 60s) is waiting for the doctor to call with her test results. Jackie’s face has become pale and her movement has slowed, but her random rummaging through memories continues to be a frantic — and dramatically unrewarding — pursuit.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; ends March 18
Tickets: $60 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org/Jackie
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes