Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
There is something inherently intriguing about imagining the meetings of famous people and the private conversations and interactions that might have taken place. Playwright Sue Peters uses just such an actual meeting for the occasion of "Piece of You" and then imagines the content of a night between the about-to-be famous actor James Dean and the fabulously wealthy and pitiable heiress Barbara Hutton. By the end of a long night of drinking, sex and self-disclosure they have revealed great volumes of their histories to each other, and substantially less of their characters.
The play begins with their chance meeting in a coffee shop, where Dean is reading an obscure book and Hutton is sipping on the obscure meaning of her existence, and both are perusing the fast-food menu for a dessert of transitory companionship. The scene is staged in the theatre lobby, which provides a nice, bustling, somewhat unfocused environment for these two to parry and flirt. When they leave for Hutton's hotel room, we move into the theatre and the remainder of the play has us conventionally placed on the fourth wall, observing an equally conventional dramatization.
Ms. Peters is a talented writer with a particular skill at writing fast-paced, neatly shaped dialogue that sounds consistent with her characters and clearly advances the storyline. Where this particular play falls short, in my opinion, is in creating a compelling enough reason for these two to be together, and powerful enough consequences for each of them to their meeting. They seem to get together so that we can hear them explain themselves to each other, and the next morning they go their separate ways, knowing much more about each other, but not apparently affecting one another's lives in any significant way. I know that is the most common course of real life, especially of one-night stands, but it's not really the stuff of great dramatic action.
The mechanical dramaturgy of drinking far too much alcohol as a means of freeing their inner-demons was trite and disappointing. The introduction of a gun early in the play added an effective lethality to their disclosures, but when it finally goes off (Chekhov in the hallway saying "Ahem") it doesn't really mean anything. Only the exploration of the Mother/Son dynamic, with references to Greek tragedy played against the mutually tawdry childhoods of each, seemed fully developed and led to the play's most rewarding resolutions.
As to the performances, Ryan Higgins plays Dean with considerable charm and a glib, energetic likeability. While I wouldn't want or expect an actor to try an impersonation of the iconic star, I do think there needed to be more of the familiar persona of the brooding, wounded, internalized young man on a fast track to an early death. Where Mr. Higgins really succeeded was in his initial scenes as a guy in a coffee shop, full of ambition and immersed in obscurity, and in the later scenes where he talks about his own mother's death when he was 9, his abandonment by his father, and his resulting emotional desolation.
Nearly twenty years older than Dean at the time of this assignation, Barbara Hutton was an emotional train-wreck. She was abandoned by her parents in childhood and left to wander in gilded, loveless estates and later through exploitative marriages, meaningless acquisition and the ultimate desolation of luxury hotels where her sustenance and desires were delivered by room service. Kim Deskin succeeds in creating a superficially worldly, jaded and self-centered woman, but there's not much vulnerability, not much need or emotional hunger, so it's hard to really feel that Dean satisfied something vital for her. Ms. Deskin simply didn't have a convincing balance of all that this woman had, and all that she so desperately lacked. There was also not a strong enough sense of a voracious sexual hunger, the sort that only someone of Dean's feral magnetism could satiate. I think when we get into the hotel room, and especially into the bed, we needed to see a woman who was literally starving for sexual affirmation, and who finally meets someone who has more virility and vitality than even he understands.
Producer and Director Brooke Cochran does a nice job of moving the action and placing the emphasis appropriately in the script, but she just doesn't have quite the horsepower she needs in this cast. While it's a good effort, I think the script here is better than the performance. Granted, there are certainly elements of the construction that I think should have been stronger, but the writing held my attention and the characters are easily interesting enough to make this meeting matter. "Piece of You" brings two fascinating people together and tells us a great deal about them. All we need is a better reason for why this meeting, on this night, was the one time that we needed to encounter them.