An advice columnist who defines herself as a Jewish Joan of Arc, a woman with chutzpah and “one hell of a Rolodex” and a person courageous enough to explain Linda Lovelace’s oral sex techniques on TV is certain to supply entertaining theater material. The world premiere portrait of Ann Landers by David Rambo (a staff writer for “CSI”), “The Lady With All the Answers” utilizes high spots of Landers’ life and career to create an enjoyable and enlightening experience that finds trouble only in its melancholic last scene.
Randy Graff, Tony winner for Broadway’s “City of Angels,” starts off by reading a few mildly kinky letters from devoted fans — episodes involving a woman who likes to do housework in the nude, and a man who greets guests in a Tarzan outfit and makes chimpanzee noises swinging from a tree.
Next, Graff converses amiably with spectators, asks questions (“how many of you were virgins until marriage?”) and makes the theater feel like a gathering in Ann’s living room. Surrounded by Ralph Funicello’s circular set, edged in decoupaged newspaper columns and fleshed out with antique furniture and a crystal chandelier, Graff avoids exaggeration and director Tom Moore subtly shapes her into a believable heroine bent on helping others.
Before long, Landers deals with her identical twin Popo who becomes Dear Abby, and she indicates their understandable rivalry through such remarks as, “I needed a call from your beloved Aunt Popo tonight like a giraffe needs strep throat.” The story is laced with similarly scathing barbs, yet overall approach to this competition is treated timidly.
At one point, Landers professes resentment against a Life magazine article that called their relationship “the most feverish female feud since Elizabeth sent Mary Queen of Scots to the chopping block.” But, a little more of that juicy combativeness would add spark to the production.
The show’s high spots are her letters regarding sex, and her starred approval of any sexual act between adults (“That’s two adult HUMANS”), before discussing a letter from a man who loved his pony the way Edward Albee’s protagonist loved his goat Sylvia. Her statistics (“82% say sex goes down after marriage”) are thought-provoking, and she frankly admits that readers have blasted her, one saying, “I took your crummy advice and it wrecked my whole life.”
Where the show runs into problems is coverage of Landers’ marriage. After 36 years of what she considered wedded bliss, her spouse left her in 1975 for a woman younger than their daughter. Landers reflects on this, defending the relationship as “one of the world’s best marriages that didn’t make it to the finish line.”
The issue of why this marriage failed is skirted, beyond an observation that it couldn’t have been easy being married to Ann Landers, and Rambo’s script is so protective of her image that it doesn’t dig below the surface to explain in depth what caused the split. Landers never examines if she was in any way responsible. She worries frequently whether the divorce will destroy her career, but her worry doesn’t have enough tension, rage or guilt.
This marital conflict — which falls into the valiant-great-lady-mode — is also the element that marches the show toward a misconceived ending, bringing the lights down on a soap opera victim. Landers is an inspiring and attractive figure in Robert Blackman’s hot pink pantsuit, and one can’t help thinking that the “lady with all the answers” would advise Rambo to jettison his last scene and remove an obstacle that might prevent his show from becoming the touring and Off Broadway success it deserves to be.