The second act of “At Liberty,” with its palpably human behind-the-scenes tales, saves Elaine Stritch’s much-lauded bio-document of a life in the theater. The first act is a verbal race through her early life, from naive youngster in Michigan to naive aspiring actress in Manhattan through Noel Coward rewriting “Sail Away” on the road for her. Second act, though, concentrates on triumph and tragedy, as she finds love, success, bitterness, depression and even salvation; her stories from London, Hollywood, New York and Warren, Ohio, guide the act. This one-woman show has its production bumps, but it’s a work of considerable clarity: Her stories are met with appropriate sighs and laughter; the songs, performed a little roughly around the edges, provide historical signposts.
Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” is the act’s musical centerpiece and Stritch uses it to expose her own vulnerability, unapologetically putting her tattered and scruffy voice through the ringer to get as much as possible out of a classic tune of survival. The performer and her co-writer John Lahr have crafted the Stritch story with a gentle level of poignancy at show’s end to allow everyone to leave with a sense they’ve seen something remarkable.
The show won Stritch her first Tony after nearly half a century; the venues where “At Liberty” has played — the Public Theater, Broadway and the West End — have sold out in the wake of showers of praise. It’s an uncommonly honest work, though reports have indicated it is more scathing than it actually is. The vastness of the Ahmanson stage, though, doesn’t work in Stritch’s favor, dimming the intensity of her emotions as she moves a stool upstage and continues with another chapter from her life. Her charisma, however, never wanes, even when she loses her place in the script or a song.
That’s generally only a problem in the first act. “At Liberty” opens quite splendidly, with Stritch delivering anecdotes about production snafus and early drinking tales, but once she gets to covering her dossier, it’s a doozy.
There are encounters in acting school with Marlon Brando, her Broadway debut, a romance with Gig Young followed by one with Ben Gazzara, the concurrent national tour of “Call Me Madam” and the Broadway run of “Pal Joey,” Rock Hudson, a flop called “Goldilocks,” Noel Coward, questionable sex appeal and Richard Burton in her dressing room. The presence of songs such as the suggestive “I Want a Long Time Daddy” and a subtle “There’s No Business Like Show Business” break up the density of her monologue, adding a hop and a skip to areas where she would otherwise run straight.
The second act is where audiences get the juice. Funniest bit is the detailed retelling of doing “The Women” with Gloria Swanson in Ohio. Hal Prince casting her in “Company” is a glorious triumph; and the audition for “The Golden Girls” — “I blew it” is her sudden mantra — conveys a special sort of despair. There’s also a marriage in there — for 10 years she actually knew well-rounded happiness — and a song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” that became her signature work. Eventually, though, Stritch harps on drinking and how booze got her through so many performances and rehearsals.
Under the pleasingly kinetic direction of George C. Wolfe, Stritch performs the entire show in tights and a white dress shirt; her backdrop (a brick wall) suggests she is delivering a pre-show tell-all to her friends backstage. Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer’s dramatic lighting touch is to have beams splay in — overly church-like — from a corner way up the wall. Theater, to Stritch, is not surprisingly a lot like religion: There are compelling elements that make a follower return over and over again, no matter where or when they may stray; there’s a sanctity to the writings and the venues; and the leaders hold sway in an indescribable manner — she knows she works for their approval.
Seeing herself as “an existential problem in tights,” Stritch concludes, “I wasn’t always there” for her own life. This exercise lets her retrace — and take responsibility for — her acts. It appears she wouldn’t change a moment in her life, that the ruts and potholes and that shaped her have led her to a place where she receives love and acceptance from the people, artists generally, who mean the most to her. And that makes for a comforting tale of triumph.