If this retro and sentimental drama were not the life story of the beloved Carol Burnett, its rose-tinted showbiz narrative would be yet another conventional entry in the bathetic lexicon of showbiz biodrama wherein rising star turns to comedy as balm for all the booze and tough love in the familial nest. But although this dramatization by Carrie Hamilton (Burnett’s late daughter) shies away from hard truths and often dramatically emphasizes the wrong sections of the source memoir, the fact that this is Burnett’s story lends it a voyeuristic sort of pleasure and marketability. Therefore, it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential appeal of “Hollywood Arms” for both Burnett’s fans and a general audience.
But any future life for this show, which currently feels more like a screenplay, will depend on the willingness and inclination of Burnett and director Harold Prince to go back and drastically rework this troubled text (especially the first act), even though one of its authors has, so sadly, passed away.
This is no “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (a show rooted in biography but enjoyable as pure fiction). It’s Burnett’s life and we’re all interested. Thus, for all the fictionalization of some biographical elements and Burnett’s understandable wish to avoid asking actresses to do impersonations of her, audiences are going to want to see something that’s more recognizably Carol Burnett in “Hollywood Arms.”
Heavily underscored and full of evocative twinkling lights and shadows, Prince’s lush, fluid and irony-free Goodman Theater premiere pays a defiant kind of romantic homage to vintage Hollywood, its victims of broken dreams and its youthful dreamers of stardom.
Set entirely in and around the Hollywood Arms, the apartment complex where Burnett spent her formative and impoverished wartime years, the play picks up Burnett (here called Helen), when she arrives in L.A. from San Antonio with her caustic but loving Nanny (Linda Lavin). On her way to fame and glory, Helen has to navigate the collective human minefield of her drunken mother, Louise (Michele Pawk), her alcoholic and largely absent father, Jody (Frank Wood), and mama’s low-status new beau Bill (Patrick Clear), who vamooses when mama hits the sauce too much.
For kicks, young Helen hangs out on the roof with buddy Malcolm (Nicholas King, the kid from “A Thousand Clowns”) and pretends to do faux radio broadcasts. In Act Two, the older Helen — now an usherette — graduates with a theater degree from college and goes off to New York, only to return to the Hollywood Arms, via the airwaves, when she appears on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (mama sobers up just in time to watch). Ultimately, Helen comes back to town to rescue teenage sis Alice (Emily Graham-Handley), who’s falling in with the wrong Hollywoof crowd, since no one’s paying her enough mind at home.
Along with the panache of the Prince visuals, the great strength of the show is the characterization of Nanny, a mind-the-value-of-a-dollar eccentric with a veritable plethora of bon mots, all delivered by the splendid Lavin with delicious aplomb. Its great weakness is that it puts far too much emphasis on Burnett’s time as a young girl — which puts too much pressure on the youthful actress playing young Helen — and pays drastically insufficient attention to the formative adolescent events that turned this young woman from a troubled home into such a star.
Most of the Burnett character’s professional development happens offstage. In the far stronger second act, the solid but overly reigned-in Donna Lynne Champlin finally gets to let rip in a musical number, which is a showstopper. If only there were more of such blooming-artist moments and less of the interminable first-act scenes of domestic kid shtick, very little of which actually works.
That’s not to say this show lacks poignancy. On the contrary, there are moving characterizations from Wood and Clear as the hapless men floating through Burnett’s matriarchal world. For lovers of old showbiz lore, there’s a certain sepia-toned mood that proves resonant. And longtime fans of the accomplished co-author no doubt will gain new respect for her ability to overcome hardship.
But one senses that no one quite knew what to do with mama. While this character’s arc probably gets the most stage time, Louise still feels like a hole of ambivalence in the heart of the play. It is, after all, far from easy to write about your own mother.