As the basis for a taut thriller it looks great on paper — was Frida Kahlo’s controversial subject Dorothy Hale murdered by ambitious presidential candidate Harry Hopkins? But after a few promising false starts, Myra Bairstow’s ambitious new play, “The Rise of Dorothy Hale,” sputters, stalls and rolls listlessly downhill to its final resting place. Better acting wouldn’t have hurt, but the total lack of narrative focus is the largest potato in this play’s tailpipe.
Bairstow has split her story into two tiers: As the curtain rises. Clare Boothe Luce (overplayed by Sarah Wynter) commissions a painting of Hale from Kahlo (Sarita Choudhury), and then, Hale herself (Laura Koffman), deals with her jealous lover Hopkins (Mark La Mura).
Frank DeLuca (Michael Badalucco) bridges the two periods — he’s the only person Frida knows who saw Hale’s body after she allegedly jumped out the window of her Hampshire House apartment.
Unfortunately, Bairstow and director Pamela Hall have mistaken this structural gag for a narrative, and so the play jumps backward and forward in time without rhyme or reason, leaving out vital information for minutiae and then delivering it clumsily right before it pays off.
It’s a play that makes you think, but frequently the thoughts go something like, “Wait, she’s pregnant? Who is this Bernie people keep talking about?” It’s hard to see such obviously meticulous research wasted in a valiant effort to communicate too much, too quickly.
Bairstow and Hall intercut the story’s progress with musings from Kahlo on art and the beauty of death. These sentiments doubtless sounded grand coming from Kahlo, but there’s an air of glibness about Bairstow’s efforts to philosophize (the constant name-checking of period theater personalities certainly doesn’t help) and people who have seen death up close may be annoyed or offended by the pretense.
As an actor, Choudhury makes the best decisions on this stage, which is to say that she makes decisions. In a strange way, the weakness of the players surrounding her underscores the play’s assertion that Kahlo was a force to be reckoned with; by comparison, she certainly seems to be.
Bairstow has curated museum collections , and, if nothing else, demonstrates impeccable taste. A reproduction of Kahlo’s magnificent painting “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” sits at the door to the theater, quietly rebuking a play that functions best as a descriptive placard next to Kahlo’s eloquent, economical work.