Chutzpah isn’t the first trait you’d associate with the elegant, patrician Ruth Draper (1884-1956), intimate of Shaw and Henry James and creator of precisely observed monodramas on the female types of her era. But to become the toast of two continents she must have had it. So does Annette Bening, in daring what so many other divas have declined (and the lady herself hoped to forbid), a recreation of Draper’s oeuvre for today. Four pieces sans interval make up the altogether charming “Ruth Draper’s Monologues” at the Geffen Playhouse, a civilized evening in every sense of the word.
Draper’s forte was droll character studies of belles and mesdames in their native habitats: a new deb at a party; a dowager hosting a restaurant luncheon for four dieters; a hearty Midwestern aesthete introducing portly middle-age charges to the glories of classical Greek movement.
The portraits are as devoid of meanness as they are of plot, laughter arising from familiar personality vagaries, as when a young lady earnestly wonders whether she possesses “character”: “I don’t know if I have or not, and I think everybody ought to know, because you never can tell when you’re going to need it!”
Draper’s work was notably simple: Bare stage, mostly neutral attire. Working as her own helmer, Bening concedes to 21st century tastes by incorporating a variety of set pieces and curtains from Takeshi Kata and lush costumes from Catherine Zuber, all with a restraint true to the original performer’s spirit.
Signature Draper pieces committed to disc late in life reveal a rich, versatile vocal instrument and depth of feeling. Bening’s deliveries are equally varied and nuanced, taking greater advantage of a full pitch range than one remembers from her film work. (Though she doesn’t seem to notice she’s carrying the same characteristic “i” sound, closer to “oi,” into all four roles.) The actress has clearly reveled in Draper CDs, but just as clearly made the material her own.
The bigger challenge is physicalization, since Draper left behind no visual record of her work. (One Ed Sullivan appearance has disappeared). Bening renders each characterization different and evocative, from the gangly co-ed radiating energy from every limb to the flamboyant Delsarte instructor taking her cue from the woodland wild. (“Nature has so many messages for us, if we would but hearken.”)
Showpiece “The Italian Lesson” is probably the first-ever feminist statement on women trying to “have it all.” An aristocratic matron gets two lines into translating Dante with a tutor, while juggling four kids, household staffers, a new puppy, countless friends and tradesfolk on the phone and a funeral just 15 minutes away. Bening escalates the action and excitement in a natural, believable way, while allowing us to experience fully the dozen or more characters through her eyes.
Does the material walk on the mild side? Assuredly so. But from the Draper slices of life can be seen a straight line to the toughest solo work of our time, including that of Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin’s “Search for Intelligent Life” and Sarah Jones’ “Bridge and Tunnel.”
Bening’s forthright, sensitive renderings honor the almost forgotten artist who initiated the tradition, as well as those who followed in her footsteps.