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Elaine Stritch at Liberty

A big personality can be both a help and a hindrance for an actor. Just ask Elaine Stritch, whose outsized presence is on major display in her captivating solo show at the Public Theater. Stritch has never won a Tony and never achieved significant film or TV fame, and her unique charisma may be part of the reason why.

A big personality can be both a help and a hindrance for an actor. Just ask Elaine Stritch, whose outsized presence is on major display in her captivating solo show at the Public Theater. Stritch has never won a Tony and never achieved significant film or TV fame, and her unique charisma, which could be likened to a very large, very dry martini, may be part of the reason why. Not everyone can take a strong drink, after all.

But will theatergoers who’ve experienced the bracing thrill of her talent ever forget it? Certainly no one who has the privilege to see this remarkable show will leave unaffected. The evening is both a powerhouse display of that talent — musical, comic and dramatic, often at the same time — and a rueful, moving and acerbic essay about the loneliness of life on the stage. It’s damn funny, too — an absolute treasure, in short.

We are instructed to report that the show has not actually been written by anyone, but “constructed” by the New Yorker’s John Lahr and “reconstructed” by Stritch (she’s a complicated woman, clearly). Crisply directed by George C. Wolfe, with the extraordinary lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer playing all the supporting roles, it is certainly the most artfully arranged slice of autobiography to be seen onstage in New York in memory. (There’s wit even in the minimal set design of Riccardo Hernandez: The show’s lone prop, a chair, boasts long, slender gams that match the performer’s.)

Musical numbers are seamlessly stitched to comic anecdotes: The show opens at a fast trot, for instance, with a brassy performance of Irving Berlin’s valentine to the footlights, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” that is turned on its ear at regular intervals by Stritch’s wry recollections of just how unpleasantly true the song’s lyrics can be. (Before going further, let’s tip our hats to the gorgeous astringency of Jonathan Tunick’s musical arrangements, which complement Stritch’s one-of-a-kind voice to perfection.)

Songs associated with Stritch — Noel Coward’s gloriously funny “Why Do the Wrong People Travel,” from “Sail Away,” Stephen Sondheim’s lacerating “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from “Company” — are woven in among other show tunes chosen for their illumination of reminiscences personal and professional.

Stritch’s singing voice is the farthest thing from pretty, but her musical instincts are flawless, and she’s a terrific actor: She sings each song with the piercing insight and unvarnished emotional truth that young girls with bell-bright sopranos can only dream of. (Perhaps only Stritch’s pal Judy Garland has done more justice to Coward’s wistful “If Love Were All.”)

The show moves more or less chronologically through the ups and downs of Stritch’s life and career, hitting many familiar touchstones of the showbiz memoir genre — the big breaks, the romances that foundered, the friendships with the famous, the battles with booze — but such is the distinctive flavor of her voice that there isn’t a moment in it that feels stale or processed or hackneyed. The writing is sharp and unpretentious, honestly felt, simply delivered, transformed by the alchemy of a great performer into entertainment of a rare and transfixing kind.

Stritch somehow caught the performing bug while attending a Catholic girls school in Detroit. It appears to have had something to do with her first whiskey sour, offered to Stritch by her father, who little knew that he was opening a Pandora’s box of possibility in his daughter’s sheltered soul (Stritch signifies the transforming effects of this elixir on her 13-year-old ego by breaking into “This Is All Very New to Me,” from “Plain and Fancy.”)

One of the most refreshing aspects of Stritch’s show is this willingness to explore the complicated role that alcohol has played in her life and career. For many years, she never took to the stage without a couple of belts under her belt. For many years, she had many more after the curtain came down. (Priceless anecdote: An evening with Garland that ended well past dawn with Garland rising, offering her hand and saying, “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this, but good night.”)

But the tales of bingeing aren’t cloaked in pathos or used to milk pity from the audience. They reveal, with biting honesty, some truths about the shadowy inner life of a performer. Both drinking and acting can offer a similar kind of intoxication, after all: an escape from the insecurities of the self, a warm, impersonal embrace that offers solace when personal ones are harder to negotiate.

Stritch needed one to achieve the other. Performing was a need fringed with deep fear. For her and many others, acting was an escape from the self, yes, but one that involved, paradoxically, the deepest kind of self-exposure. (This is what gives great performances their power.)

Simply said, alcohol smoothed the way. As she puts it with the winning bluntness that is typical of her straight-shooting voice: “It’s scary up here. OK? So you’re scared. You drink. You’re not scared. What is the problem?

The problem isn’t the two drinks before the show, but the many encores. Eventually Stritch had to learn to go onstage “alone,” as she puts it.

Her stories about romance also end on sad and solitary notes. Affairs with Gig Young and Ben Gazzara conclude unsatisfactorily (the latter hilariously, when Stritch falls head over heels for Rock Hudson). A late marriage to actor John Bay ended tragically after 10 years with his death from cancer.

But Stritch is anything but maudlin. A sense of humor, a sense of proportion, sheer smarts kept her afloat. And, in some subterranean chamber of her psyche, a belief in her talent and the importance of her gift that was as strong as her bone-deep insecurity.

Stritch’s encore is perhaps the most revelatory moment in the show, and the most moving. It’s an unlikely song: Richard Rodgers’ “Something Good,” from the movie “The Sound of Music” (of all un-Stritchian things!). The song is an ode to insecurity: “For here you are, there you are, loving me,” it runs, “Whether or not you should./So somewhere in my youth or childhood/I must have done something good.”

The words are heartbreakingly tentative, and the tears in her eyes tell us Stritch means every one of them. That’s a bit sad, but the greatest performers are often the ones haunted by doubt. They know how fragile their art is, how tough it is — how tough life is — but also how much it all can mean to the folks beyond the footlights, whose lives are tough, too. They’re always proving themselves, and living with uncertainty, and stepping onstage anyway, alone. We meet them in our own solitude; something happens to us, we leave a little transformed. They go back to the dressing room. Alone.

Elaine Stritch at Liberty

Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Theater; 299 seats; $45

Production: A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a solo show in two acts written by John Lahr and Elaine Stritch. Directed by George C. Wolfe.

Creative: Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costume, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Acme Sound Partners; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music director, Rob Bowman; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; production stage manager, Rick Steiger. Opened Nov. 7, 2001. Reviewed Nov. 4. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

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