Give Mark Hampton and Barbara J. Zitwer a point or two for sheer chutzpah. In their biographical wallowing in the life of Jacqueline Susann, they have dared to be as trashy as Susann was in her bestselling novels. When in doubt, throw in another dirty joke. Maybe the biggest joke, unfortunately, is that “Paper Doll” isn’t really a play at all. It’s a series of emotionless, in-your-face monologues hurled at the audience. The cast and director work hard — too hard — to sell the script, but it remains infinitely resistible.
Publicity for “Paper Doll” suggests that it’s an investigation of the great love between Susann and her husband and manager Irving Mansfield, but the play fails both to define its characters and to create relationships between them. Dixie Carter labors mightily, and often well, in the title role.
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But she has chosen, presumably with the approval of director Leonard Foglia and the playwrights, to project a tough, hard Susann without a shred of warmth. Add a vocal delivery that remains pretty much on one note and it’s impossible to give a hoot about this woman, even when she’s dying of cancer in act two, when the play attempts to get sentimentally serious. Carter and Jerry Grayson, who plays Mansfield, never make any real connection on stage.
Hampton and Zitwer don’t pussyfoot around with their sleaziness. In the first few minutes, set in 1969 at the time of the publication of “The Love Machine,” the audience gets an invitation to a blow job. A nude male streaker flashes across the stage not once but twice. It’s downhill from there, as the production becomes more and more aggressive, at times playing to individual members of the audience who are singled out for attention. Several scenes take place in TV studios, and the audience is treated as if it were actually in a TV studio. It’s surprising that “applause” cards aren’t held up.
Susann pops pills (she’s “on everything but roller skates”), cracks wise, cuddles her French poodle Josephine and taps away at her pink typewriter. Meanwhile, the play keeps telling us things without ever actually demonstrating or illuminating anything.
The minor characters played by Joanne Genelle and Adrian Rieder, along with a cute French poodle, are more or less irrelevant. There’s a faint suggestion of lesbianism in Susann’s relationship with Ethel Merman (there’s a lot of name-dropping) and when Genelle as a prostitute-fan kisses Susann on the lips.
“Paper Doll” has its eye on Broadway, and it has been given an expensive-looking physical production. The set is sleek and moderne, mostly black and white, with a circular metal staircase and a rear wall lit in multicolored lights that slides open here and there to reveal a bar or a bedroom or a studio.
The play was first seen in a full production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and then at Duke U., with Marlo Thomas and F. Murray Abraham. A number of cast changes were announced before Carter and Grayson were secured for the Long Wharf run.