Six years after creating her existential one-woman show at the Public, Elaine Stritch reprises that turn with what might be even more astounding results. This is one of those rare cases in which people who loved the show before — on Broadway, the West End, the road, cable or video — will find the experience enhanced by another visit. First nighters expecting a typical, 90-minute cabaret turn — in the manner of the star’s 2005 and 2006 acts at the downstairs cafe in the hotel where she lives — were surprised to find the Broadway-length “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” on display, intermission and all.
Here is the actress, alone on a four-foot square platform. No scenery, no wings, no fourth wall; just Stritch in a button-down white Oxford, black tights, and a tasteful set of pearls. Such is the proximity of the room that ringsiders can make out the St. Christopher’s medallion beneath the pearls and a gold Medic-Alert bracelet.
But just Elaine is more than enough. The tigress on display in “At Liberty” is presented without bars. Stritch must have been a whirlwind when she played matinees in the original production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” back in 1963. At the Carlyle, in 2008, you get the impression of sitting on the living room couch as she lashes into her Martha. The face is understandably craggy, but the words are sharp and movements precise.
When Stritch launches into her 1947 showstopper “Civilization” (“Bongo, bongo, bongo”), complete with the primitive “original choreography” (as she terms it), the lady is ageless and just as funny as she must have been back when Truman was squabbling with MacArthur.
As best one can tell, this is the entire show with perhaps 10 minutes-worth of trimming. The only noticeable cut is the section about that ill-fated summer stock production of “The Women.”
Stritch’s Tony- and Emmy-winning performance remains almost identical (“Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”, the showstopper that caps the first act, seems even funnier than before). Star is backed by her Broadway conductor, Rob Bowman, following her every move. George C. Wolfe, who directed the original production, goes unmentioned in the program; in his place is the cryptic billing “Direction One Day With Jack O’Brien.” Only tech credit is “Lighting an Afternoon With Cletus Karamon.”