Propelled by the reteaming of “Dynasty” divas Joan Collins and Linda Evans, “Legends!” is back onstage after 20 years in the trunk. Or maybe the grave would be a more appropriate resting place for this dead-on-arrival comedy, which finally had its official opening and press night following a month of previews, just 10 days before the end of its Toronto run.
The James Kirkwood play toured extensively across America in 1986 with Carol Channing and Mary Martin. It received almost universally negative reviews at every stop and never made it into New York, but lives on in infamy thanks to Kirkwood’s bitchy backstage memoir, “Diary of a Mad Playwright,” published after his death in 1989.
“Legends!” is the story of two once-big movie stars, Sylvia Glenn (the bad girl) and Leatrice Monsee (the sweetie), who hated each other in real life with a passion. Now, many years later, with old age and poverty staring them in the face, a crass, opportunistic young producer named Martin Klemmer hopes to bring them back together onstage to ensure an audience for a new play he hopes to produce.
Kirkwood’s script is a patch-up job at best, with passages of bitchery and bathos alternating with witless farce. There are lots of hopeless attempts at making this talkfest “theatrical,” including an encounter with a tray of hash brownies which seemed dated in 1986 and now looks positively prehistoric.
The only conceivable reason for reviving this script seems to be as an appropriate vehicle for the team of Collins and Evans — best remembered as the feuding Alexis and Krystle on 1980s nighttime soap “Dynasty.” Collins has had plentiful theater experience, but Evans had literally not set foot on a stage since high school.
While the preopening buzz indicated Evans was having trouble keeping up with Collins, in actuality, the opposite is true. Evans plays Leatrice for reality throughout, and although she still needs a bit of time to learn how to push her personality a bit further over the footlights, she makes a pleasing impression — especially in a speech about her battle with breast cancer. (Ironically, that was the scene which the 1986 producers wanted to cut and drove Martin to give her notice.)
Collins gives us her best Joan Collins, which is not quite right for Sylvia. Yes, they both have played their share of tramps and bitches, but Sylvia has a North American edge that Collins lacks. Also, too often she seems to be playing the audience, rather than the part.
The whole production has a loosey-goosey summer stock feel about it at present, with a setting by Jesse Poleshuck that doesn’t nearly look luxurious enough for the Park Avenue penthouse it’s supposed to be. The sound effects all sound canned and the pace is often unforgivably sluggish.
Blame director John Bowab for all of that as well as for the failure to build any of the play’s supposed “comedy” moments to a sufficient climax. Act one ends with a catfight between the two stars, which audiences are primed for, considering Evans and Collins’ frequent slugfests on “Dynasty.” But here, Bowab has most of it take place on a balcony out of view and the great climactic moment when the women rip off each other’s wigs happens offstage.
As far as the audience is concerned, the high point is the strip routine performed with smiling panache by Will Holman as a Chippendale’s “present” for a party that never happened. It’s just one of the many examples of the cut-and-paste dramaturgy that proves the evening’s undoing.
In the two supporting roles, Tonye Patano does what she can with the embarrassingly written role of feisty black maid Aretha. When Sylvia tells her to go into the kitchen “to pick some cotton,” it might be intended as arch banter but it comes perilously close to racism. And Joe Farrell is so busy trying to be funny as producer Klemmer that he gets very few laughs indeed. To be fair to Farrell, a lot of the role was constructed around Gary Beach, who originally played the part, and it’s possible to imagine him being funny in it.
There are 17 cities set to follow Toronto on a tour scheduled to run until next May, with talk of going on to Broadway or London after that. It’s all exactly like the original 1986 history that haunted “Legends!” first time around. It was a financially lucrative, if artistically underwhelming event, and one wonders if the current producers are prepared to accept a similar scenario.
The idea of Collins and Evans onstage together is an intriguing one, but the question must be asked: didn’t anybody read “Legends!” first? Or more to the point, didn’t they read “Diary of a Mad Playwright?” It could have saved a lot of people a lot of grief.