‘The Lady With All the Answers’

WORDSMITH: Mimi Kennedy portrays columnist Ann Landers in David Rambo's "The Woman With All the Answers," currently at the Pasadena Playhouse.
WORDSMITH: Mimi Kennedy portrays columnist Ann Landers in David Rambo’s “The Woman With All the Answers,” currently at the Pasadena Playhouse.
(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
Theater Critic

“The Lady With All the Answers” -- the solo show about advice columnist Ann Landers, which opened Friday at Pasadena Playhouse -- tries to make a virtue out of innocuousness.

A breezy encounter with the Midwestern bouffant of syndicated fame, the piece invites us to spend a little behind-the-scenes time with the woman who, until her death in 2002, never failed to impart a word or two of stern common sense to her distressed readers. Yet like many dramatic impersonations of this sort, it’s a case of a piquant personality in search of a play.

‘The Lady With All the Answers’: A theater review in Monday’s Calendar section of “The Lady With All the Answers” said that Ann Landers was born Eppie Lederer. Lederer was her married name. She was born Esther Pauline Friedman, and her nickname was Eppie. —

As portrayed by Mimi Kennedy, Landers comes off as a single-minded professional with a taste for luxury and a sensibility that is as progressive as it is old-fashioned. David Rambo’s featherweight script -- drawn in part from Landers’ letters, which are tightly controlled by her daughter, Margo Howard -- wants us to empathize with her, and Kennedy pulls out all the stops to captivate us.

Stylishly dressed in slim-fitting slacks and a silky top, she talks directly to us, her faithful public, in a sly, conspiratorial manner. On deadline, she prances around her posh, antiques-laden Chicago apartment, munching on chocolates and showing off one of her many fur coats as she deliberates over problems -- other people’s and her own.

It’s an amiable cartoon that never risks becoming real, even when the phone rings and Landers’ identical twin and journalistic rival, “Popo,” otherwise known as “Dear Abby,” gets the short end of her sister’s not-unlimited patience.

Granted, Landers is especially on edge tonight: Her husband has been having an affair with a much younger woman and she feels she must tell her readers that her marriage is over. This wouldn’t seem to be such a big deal, even by the more conventional standards of 1975, when the play is set. But Landers, who was always advising couples to work through their difficulties and who publicly commemorated her 30th wedding anniversary with the prose equivalent of a violin orchestra, is afraid of being seen as a hypocrite.

“I’ve been so anti-divorce, my dateline could be Vatican City,” she quips.

Struggling to write -- ponderous underscoring, please -- “the most important column” of her career, Landers fills us in on her improbable yet inexorable rise. Born Eppie Lederer, she inherited the Chicago Sun-Times column when Ruth Crowley, the original “Ann Landers,” died in 1955.

Lederer, by her own account, wasn’t an obvious choice to become the voice of domestic counsel in America. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she held no fancy degrees, considered herself politically left of center and had only her “chutzpah and one hell of a Rolodex” to guide her.

She also had a rising entrepreneurial husband who would take over Budget Rent a Car and lavish her with deluxe goodies. But no matter how expensively she was decked out, this self-starter never lost sight of her middle-class roots.

Landers credits her writings on homosexuality, cancer and marital kink with creating a more candid national dialogue. Rambo doesn’t care to mention that for every step taken, there was often a half-step taken back. To him, she’s a daily-rag hero who would, in her own words, rather have her “column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer Prize.”

But the downside to this kind of fandom is that there isn’t enough drama. Neither Landers’ situation with her husband nor her prickly temperament is deeply examined. And when the intermission comes less than an hour into the story, it feels unearned, as though the first act were merely an airy preface.

The production, directed by Brendon Fox, handsomely unfolds on Gary Wissmann’s smart living-room set. And Kennedy, maximizing the light laughs, looks perfectly at home in this Lake Shore Drive palace.

But the show poses a troubling artistic question that might have reduced Landers to an awkward silence -- namely, is this the best Pasadena Playhouse could come up with?