“I Loved Lucy,” Lee Tannen’s dramatized memoir of his latter-day friendship with Lucille Ball (1911-89), could have been so much more than a pleasant trifle. Even die-hard fans, blissed out simply to spend 90 minutes in the company of the redhead, as impressively incarnated by Diane J. Findlay, may find themselves wishing both text and Laguna Playhouse production were truly grappling with the issues raised: a legend in winter, a great fan to the rescue.
Tannen (Jeffry Denman), an East Coast ad man obsessed with the rerun antics of Mr. and Mrs. Ricky Ricardo, uses a remote family connection to become a fixture at Lucy’s Beverly Hills manse. There, while husband Gary Morton runs around town drumming up deals for projects such as the disastrous final ABC series, Tannen serves as backgammon partner, sharer of cheap meals and factotum to the increasingly crotchety and erratic star.
Findlay is an astonishing lookalike for Ball, especially in her quick-on-the-draw deadpan takes of disapproval. She can’t quite hit Ball’s gravelly vocal depths (could Tom Waits?), but her single coughed “Ha!” rings true, as does the solicitude for the young, doting “extra man” at the backgammon table.
The unexplored theme is the relationship between idol and idolizer when intimacy develops and the pre-set roles get blurry. Therein lies danger, and in fact the strongest moments are when Tannen forgets himself and behaves with lese majeste, or jokes about Lucy’s age in a way she doesn’t find funny.
But things get no richer, let alone darker; this is Roxbury Drive, not “Sunset Blvd.” For that matter, self-centered afternoons with Ball were a far cry from “Tuesdays With Morrie.” If Tannen changed, or learned anything, over 10 years of grilled cheese and franks ‘n’ beans, we can’t infer it from Denman’s one-note sunny Jim performance, which constantly invites us