Co-starring husband-and-wife duo Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley, this two-hander makes clear who's the real thesp in the family
They’ve been husband and wife for nearly 30 years, and now, thanks to “Assisted Living,” being given its world premiere at L.A.’s Odyssey Theater, Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley are co-authors and co-stars. He’s one of Hollywood’s great character actors. She’s creator of “My So-Called Life” and book writer of “Wicked.” Who knows who wrote what in “Assisted Living,” a two-hander in which a fading soap opera star meets up with a devoted fan, who is not quite a stalker. It’s very clear, however, who’s the real thesp in the family.
But first, about the play. Sometime between “Tootsie” in 1982 and “Soapdish” in 1991, film producers pretty much knew that soap opera as a subject had been mined for all the laughs there were. So leave it to the theater to be a generation or two behind the curve. Holzman and Dooley know how to write a good zinger (“How’s the hair?” asks the old actor. “I believe it,” she replies), but the absurdity of soap-opera plotlines and character names like Indigo and Bliss and August feel rehashed here. And of course there’s a long speech about all the great stage roles the old actor never played because he sold out to daytime TV for 36 years.
The comedy’s promising construct is that this two-hander actually features four characters. Frank (Dooley), the soap-opera star, lives with his long-suffering girlfriend, Emily (Holzman), who reads a fan letter that intrigues her. In scene two, Holzman plays the fan, Heather, and Dooley is her father, Edgar, whom she’s caring for in an assisted living center. In both cases, Holzman plays the put-upon caregiver, Dooley the egotistical taker.
And Larry Biederman is the director, but he’s not a magician. And there’s no way that his two actors are equally matched, which throws off the play’s balance. Dooley appears to live, not act, his roles. He is Frank as well as Edgar, two men who are as uncomfortable in life as anyone would be sitting on a lumpy sofa. Holzman possesses a nervous looped-on-helium charm, but playing the more active character (Frank and Edgar have the dramatic arc of a road in Nebraska), she doesn’t drive the drama. It’s all twitches and tics with no motor.
While there are only four characters onstage, “Assisted Living” abounds with stories about girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who cater to but are ill-treated by their boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. (Actually, the offstage son Eric also swindles his father.) It’s an intriguing view of the sexes. We hear a lot about misogyny in the arts. Finally, misandry gets its due.
(Odyssey Theater, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $25 top)
A Linda Toliver, Gary Guidinger & Hayloft Productions presentation of a play in one act written and performed by Paul Dooley and Winnie Holzman. Directed by Larry Biederman. Sets, Frederica Nascimento; costumes, Paula Higgins; lighting, Jared A. Sayeg; sound, Bob Blackburn. Opened and reviewed April 5, 2013. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.