CHICAGO A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett, based on Burnett's memoir "One More Time." Directed by Harold Prince. Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Howell Brinkley; sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Joseph Drumond. Artistic director, Robert Falls. Opened April 28, 2002. Reviewed April 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
Nanny Linda Lavin Louise Michele Pawk Young Helen Sara Niemietz Older Helen Donna Lynne Champlin Malcolm Nicholas King Alice Emily Graham-Handley Bill Patrick Clear Jody Frank Wood
With: Barbara Robertson, Christian Kohn, Steve Bakunas.
If this retro and sentimental drama were not the life story of the beloved Carol Burnett, its rose-tinted showbiz narrative would be a conventional entry in the bathetic lexicon of showbiz biodrama wherein rising star turns to comedy as balm for all the booze and tough love in the familial nest. This dramatization by Burnett and Carrie Hamilton (Burnett's late daughter) of Burnett's memoir shies away from hard truths and often emphasizes the wrong sections of the book, but the fact that it is Burnett's story lends it both interest and marketability. It would be a mistake to underestimate the potential appeal of "Hollywood Arms" for both Burnett's fans and a general audience.
Future life for this show, which currently feels more like a staged screenplay, will depend on the willingness of Burnett and director Harold Prince to drastically rework the text (especially the first act). The task may be made more painful by the sad fact of Hamilton's recent death from cancer.
This is no "Brighton Beach Memoirs," a show rooted in biography but enjoyable as pure fiction. Its chief interest is its autobiographical nature. Thus, for all the fictionalization of some elements and Burnett's understandable wish to avoid asking actresses to do impersonations of her, audiences are going to want to see something that's more recognizably Carol Burnett in "Hollywood Arms."
Heavily underscored and full of evocative twinkling lights and shadows, Prince's lush, fluid and irony-free Goodman Theater premiere pays a defiant kind of romantic homage to vintage Hollywood, its victims and its dreamers.
Set entirely in and around the apartment complex where Burnett spent her formative and impoverished wartime years, the play picks up Burnett (here called Helen) when she arrives in L.A. from San Antonio with her caustic but loving Nanny (Linda Lavin). On her way to fame and glory, Helen has to navigate the collective human minefield of her drunken mother, Louise (Michele Pawk), her alcoholic and largely absent father, Jody (Frank Wood), and mama's low-status new beau Bill (Patrick Clear), who vamooses when mama hits the sauce too much.
For kicks, young Helen (Sara. Niemietz) hangs out on the roof with buddy Malcolm (Nicholas King, the kid from "A Thousand Clowns") and pretends to do radio broadcasts. In act two, the older Helen (Donna Lynne Champlin) -- now an usherette -- graduates with a theater degree from college and goes off to New York, only to return to the Hollywood Arms, via the airwaves, when she appears on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (mama sobers up just in time to watch). Ultimately, Helen comes back to town to rescue teenage sis Alice (Emily Graham-Handley), who's falling in with the wrong crowd.
Along with the panache of the Prince visuals, the great strength of the show is the characterization of Nanny, a mind-the-value-of-a-dollar eccentric with a veritable plethora of bon mots, all delivered by the splendid Lavin with delicious aplomb. Its great weakness is that it puts far too much emphasis on Burnett's time as a young girl -- which puts too much pressure on the youthful actress playing young Helen -- and pays insufficient attention to the formative adolescent events that turned a young woman from a troubled home into such a star.
Most of Helen's professional development happens offstage. In the far stronger second act, the solid but overly reined-in Champlin finally gets to let rip in a showstopping musical number. If only there were more of such blooming-artist moments and less of the interminable first-act scenes of domestic kid shtick.
And one senses that no one quite knew what to do with mama. While this character's arc probably gets the most stage time, Louise still feels like a hole of ambivalence in the heart of the play.
That's not to say the show lacks poignancy. On the contrary, there are moving characterizations from Wood and Clear as the hapless men floating through Helen's world. For lovers of showbiz lore, there's a certain sepia-toned mood that proves resonant. And fans of the accomplished co-author no doubt will gain new respect for her ability to overcome hardship.