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My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee

With her regal bearing and distinguished body of work, Ruby Dee is the sort of actress people like to call a national treasure. But that doesn't excuse her creating this solipsistic one-woman show. Solo shows, especially those written and performed by the same person, can easily devolve into self-involved exercises. But rather than avoid the pitfalls, Dee plunges straight for them.

With her regal bearing and distinguished body of work, Ruby Dee is the sort of actress people like to call a national treasure. But that doesn’t excuse her creating this solipsistic one-woman show. Solo shows, especially those written and performed by the same person, can easily devolve into self-involved exercises. But rather than avoid the pitfalls, Dee plunges straight for them.

Some theatergoers may enjoy this diffuse excursion, in which Dee snappily riffs about everything from love to hair-care products. But others will find the thesp’s self-satisfied musings banal and pretentious. Certainly, there seems little point to the show beyond allowing Dee to bask in her own star wattage. Of course, the actress has real charisma, and for some, that may be enough.

For the rest of us, this long show proves trying, especially at two hours and 15 minutes. Why neither Dee nor helmer Charles Nelson Reilly pared the show to a comparatively svelte 90 minutes, sans intermission, is anyone’s guess. Trimming is suggestion No. 1.

Suggestion No. 2 is to cut cute bits like the fractured fairy tales, which Dee recites from an easy chair. The hair-care commentary should also go.

More importantly, Dee needs to lose the bad poetry she inflicts on her audience. “Owed to a Funny Man,” for instance, is a meandering rant chastising a black comedian for forgetting his roots.

And what’s up with those truncated tributes to Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur? Dee actually admits that she’d barely heard of Gaye when he died.

Dee’s show does offer a few touching moments, however. Her mini memory play in which a domestic waits for the man of her dreams while humming “The Man I Love” is a poignant evocation of a lost time. And the so-called duologue between an educated young woman and her dubious mother provides some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Given how static this show could have been, Reilly should at least be commended for Dee’s fluid movements. And James Noone’s handsome set, composed primarily of white-washed books, is another plus.

Too bad the show it supports isn’t nearly as elegant or effective.

My One Good Nerve: A Visit With Ruby Dee

Canon Theater; 382 seats; $45 top

  • Production: A Sidney, Harry and Ossie Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Ruby Dee. Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Sets, James Noone; costumes, Robert Mackintosh; sound, Tim Schnellenbaum, Jon Gottlieb; music, Bernard Phillips; stage manager, Ed De Shae. Opened May 23, 1999. Reviewed May 26. Closes July 4. 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Music By: