Lesley Abrams gives a breathless, energetic account of the escapades, wit and wisecracks of an acerbic, early 20th-century poet and writer in the one-woman show she wrote and performs in. “Dorothy Parker’s Last Call” opened Saturday night at Live Theatre Workshop.
You have probably heard (or used) some of Parker’s quips and quotes:
- “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
- “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
- “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Abrams, whose day job is pastor at St. John on the Desert Presbyterian Church, wholeheartedly embraces Parker in this play that Abrams first brought to Winding Road Theatre Ensemble five years ago.
Lively narration is interspersed with Parker’s poetry and short-story excerpts, along with her responses to press-conference questions and within conversations. Abrams effectively takes the audience through Parker’s life, growing up as a “mongrel” of mixed ethnicity and religious background, through three marriages and two husbands, one best friend, several lovers and dogs, suicide attempts and many bottles of booze — all along Parker’s rutted road to becoming a recognized writer with an acerbic typewriter during a golden age of magazine writing and the gaiety of New York following World War I.
Abrams playfully tells the story of a little girl with a Jewish surname being kicked out of parochial school for describing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”
Abrams shares Parker’s career arc. She played the piano at a dancing school to earn a living until she established herself as a writer and theater critic. At Vanity Fair magazine, she bonded with her bestie, Robert Benchley, one of the few men, it seems, with whom she did not have an affair.
Parker, Benchley and a few other literati, like Harold Ross, Harpo Marx and Alexander Woollcott, started having lunch almost every day at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. The Algonquin Round Table brought together smarty-pants writers who would drink, share snarky barbs, drink some more and play word games. Did we mention they drank?
Abrams seems to have a twinkle in her eye when sharing mischievous Parker’s firing from Vanity Fair after some caustic critical comments offended powerful producer Florenz Ziegfeld (of Follies fame). Benchley resigned in protest and the two started freelance writing in a tiny office. They wrote for the fledgling The New Yorker, and Parker established herself for humorous writing in magazines and in her own poetry volumes, as well as short stories. Her short story “Big Blonde” received the O. Henry Award as the best short story of 1929.
Parker became an outspoken social justice advocate. Abrams, in character, says at one point that she was always interested in social justice. She went to Boston to protest the pending executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. She was arrested and paid a $5 fine for “loitering and sauntering.”
She went to Spain during its civil war and was on the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. When she died in 1967, her entire estate went to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and subsequently to the NAACP after his death. The Live Theater Workshop program thanks the group for authorizing the use of Parker’s words.
Live Theater’s stage, surrounded on three sides by fewer than 100 seats, is the ideal, intimate setting for Abrams to interact with the audience. It’s also well suited for her to move among the sparsely furnished set, which includes a chaise lounge that has an early 20th century je ne sais quoi. An image of “A Vicious Circle,” Natalie Ascencios’ famed painting of the Algonquin Round Table, adds to the play’s sense of time and place.
Throughout the performance Abrams pushes a glass cart topped with decanters and glasses, frequently pouring herself a drink. With each drink throughout the performance, she appeared more and more sloshed, symbolic of Parker’s increasingly erratic behavior as she devolved into a drink glass.
Abrams is engaging as Parker, right down to her hat and fringe of black bangs. Abrams told the Star earlier this month that she wanted to keep Parker’s memory from fading and that it’s important to keep Parker’s works and her spirits alive.
“Last Call” certainly achieves those goals, and deserves a wider audience. However, Abrams’ manic performance — perhaps too much opening-night energy — doesn’t project Parker’s full range of emotion. The Spanish Civil War’s brutality and devastation was not fully felt. The transition between narration and some of the readings also seemed too rushed.
Likewise, Parker’s maturation as a social activist could have benefited from further development.
Overall, “Dorothy Parker’s Last Call” is an engaging experience. You’ll laugh, snicker, get some new insights into Parker, and want to reread “Big Blonde.”