"Valley of the Dolls"is a shamelessly overwrought wallow in celebrity angst. Its weepy cautionary tale of the fall of beautiful young women to the glamorous, decadent high-life of the 1960's had just the right recipe of whine and cheese to sell a gazillion copies. The subsequent movie became a high-kitsch cult classic. Stars like Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward brought their own tabloid excess to the cliché roles.
In this new stage version, the authors smartly chose not only to re-enact the film, but to set it all in the memory of a boy named Nick, who would watch the film with his mother as it endlessly replayed on the three o'clock movie. Little Nick has this inexplicable need to imitate every gesture and inflection. When the dress fits, he wears it. As the character of Ann Welles, he enters the action of the film, just as each of these characters has entered his own imaginary life. While Nick Garrison plays the role in drag, his performance is the work of an actor, not an impersonator. Adrift in a sea of neurosis, his Anne Welles has a decency and genuine empathy that allows us an investment in the melodrama much greater than the story itself earns. We care because Anne cares, not because the characters really deserve it.
All of the characters walk a fine line between exaggeration and outright parody. No one does that more expertly than Sarah Harlett, who plays the Patty Duke role of Neely O'Hara with jaw-dropping intensity. Embroiled in her ferocious struggle to succeed as a singer, and also to defeat the drugs and doubt she consumes with an equal appetite, this amazing performance not only hits its relatively easy target, but carpet bombs everything Patty Duke has done since, and most everyone else on stage. A dueling divas backstage scene with the marvelous Suzanne Bouchard (the Susan Hayward character) is scaldingly bitchy, and a perfect delight. Jennifer North plays the tragic Sharon Tate with an ephemeral sweetness as insubstantial and tasty as meringue, but never quite allows us to understand why she lingers in the public imagination, or what she represents in the Hollywood mystique.
Where the play is less successful is in the direction, by Allison Narver and Burton Curtis. The first act has a lot of trouble finding exactly the tone it wants, and as a result is neither as funny, as sly, nor as focused as it should be. Given the dubious value of the material to begin with, we need to know exactly how to take all this. Is it affectionate, cynical, satiric or simply a remote oddity of the period? Are we laughing with it, at it, or through it? Exactly why is it so dear to Nick? The smart conceit of the young boy Nick that opens the show is never revisited, and that leaves the play feeling somewhat incomplete. By the second act, which is far more consistent, the play seems to find itself, and ends with a solid, confident conclusion.
"Valley of the Dolls" is an amusing and often quite funny piece of cultural detritus. This production gives it a good showing, and in spite of its uneven identity, and its slippery stylistic grip, it succeeds as a harmless and often smart diversion. It isn't Charles Busch, but it sits in the same darkened rooms, and dreams the same light-intoxicated images.
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