Juxtaposing Abraham Lincoln’s assassination with the personal and professional intrigues of the acting company in attendance, Charles Busch’s “Our Leading Lady” serves neither history nor showbiz particularly well or interestingly. Impeccable style might be able to salvage this patent gimcrackery, but Brady Schwind’s West Coast premiere production at Palos Verdes Estates’ Neighborhood Playhouse rarely errs on the side of subtlety.
As that fateful April 14 looms, the winding down of the Civil War has nothing on the backstage tizzy at Ford’s Theater (lovingly recreated by designer Vali Tirsoaga, with theatrical tchotchkes hanging from the rafters). Diva Laura Keene (Gillian Doyle), it’s rumored during rehearsals, may stay in Washington to take the theater’s reins if the presidential box approves of “Our American Cousin.”
But with secret identities, jealousies and clandestine romances rampant, and residual North/South conflict still seething, whose employment (if any) will the burgeoning impresario retain?
Unfortunately, to Schwind, “backstage tizzy” seems to call for an orgy of grievous overacting in which no comment is unaccompanied by gesture. No stick goes unslapped; no prat fails to fall. Ladies hoping to disguise their motives snarl and shriek, while gentlemen conducting a discreet affair literally live up to the term “screaming queens.”
The heightened temperature — and playing the fourth wall as a mirror, such that the characters keep confronting each other face front — clearly intend to blur the line between offstage and performance realities. But with no normative behavior to which we can relate, the result is a gallery of jerky marionettes inspiring only indifference.
Sadness and shock briefly invade Laura’s hotel room the morning after the shooting, finally offering hints of the sensitive staging Schwind brought to “Parade” at this theater last year, and to Covina’s charming chamber version of “The Light in the Piazza” last month.
Then it’s back to Ford’s for more over-the-top readings and maladroit comic biz when the assassin’s identity is revealed. Busch raises a provocative dramatic issue — the suspicion immediate falling on any colleague of John Wilkes Booth — only to drop it abruptly as an Army major (Michael Prohaska) brings more buffoonery than reality to his interrogations.
Several thesps rise above the air of cured ham. With singular comic technique, the expressive Carla Valentine turns Busch’s most absurd creation — an escaped slave who survived the War disguised as a Chinese amah — into the production’s most believable figure.
Tracy Ahern’s potted ingenue Clementine amusingly stays within her own private world, and second-rate matinee idol Harry (Robert Youngs) would earn even more poignancy if he weren’t strangled by a Dudley Do-Right voice.
But Doyle’s Laura — one of those grande dames Busch keeps writing even though no one but Busch himself can fully inhabit them — lacks the sang-froid of a juggernaut. Falling into everyone else’s hysteria, she leaves the play without a center.
All are impeccably dressed in Jane Greenwood’s original frocks from the 2007 Gotham engagement, but in this context they are, to twist Hamlet’s words, merely “the outward trappings and the suits of woe.”