Adobe Rose Theatre, Santa Fe
October 5 – 15, 2017
You know, I’ve never really been satisfied with anything I’ve ever written. But writing has always been the most precious thing in life to me.
The thing is, if you’re going to write, you can’t pretend. It’s going to be the best you can do and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you.
Nearly one hundred years ago, Dorothy Parker became a theater critic for Vanity Fair. Last night, I watched a play about Parker, which I shall now attempt to review. What follows is, unfortunately, the best I can do.
With its script by Santa Fean Annie Lux, The Portable Dorothy Parker is almost as good as being a fly on the wall while one of the most popular writers and oft-quoted wits of the early twentieth century holds forth. It also serves as an excellent example that good art gets better with investigation, concealing and revealing layers of our very human desire to be understood. This is true of Impressionist painting, opera, and literature, as well as contemporary art that appears to be inexplicable.
Parker was a member of “The Lost Generation” that included her youthful cohorts F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. (Although Hemingway didn’t much care for Parker, she admired him publicly and in private.) Unfortunately for the subject of our imaginary visit, however, by the time we find her in Lux’s play, it’s 1943, and Parker is no longer young, nor, one would presume, particularly lost. She knows herself rather all too well. She’s post-menopausal and her husband is away at war. Not that husbands, we suspect, were always her target audience. And this is a woman who had grown used to an audience, adoring or not, gaining fame as a founder of the Algonquin Round Table, the “Vicious Circle” of writers and wits who met daily at the hotel from 1918 to about 1929. Their tools of the trade seemed to be booze, a mordant verbal precision, and more booze. And my god, how they were adored! For all their preciosity, their snobbery, their indefatigable and insufferable New Yorker-ness, they were indisputably the cool kids. Since they wrote for newspapers and magazines, their witticisms landed in print, and they formed perhaps the first “famous-for-being-famous” group whose individual members couldn’t make it far without propping each other up. By the 1930s, Hollywood had lured many, including Parker, away from their beloved Manhattan, though most remained steadfast New Yorkers to their bones regardless of where they hung their hats.
In this one-act play, we join Parker in her nondescript hotel rooms in Midtown, where an (invisible) assistant editor has arrived to help gather material for a proposed anthology of her work, which would become Viking Press’s collection, The Portable Dorothy Parker. Lording it over the pretty young thing who’s come to worship at the altar of the storied Gonk circle, Parker, fueled by endless sips of Scotch, repeats her version of the gospel to the nameless assistant who stands in for us, Parker’s audience—an audience she seems to need desperately.
Thanks to Lux’s script, and actor Margot Avery and director Lee Costello’s able handling of the character, we glimpse cracks in Parker’s diamond sharpness. By the end of the play, I had found much to relate to in a personage who was once young, beautiful, and clever—attributes that our culture still insists upon in a woman. Parker is driven to a very civilized madness, wondering something along the lines of Was it enough to be witty? Am I now wise? And what difference does it make? Confusing celebrity with self-worth and fame with eternal worship are the demons nipping at Parker’s heels (not to mention galloping alcoholism). On the subject of fame, she plucks from her pile of papers a poem and reads it:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Roumania.
Parker goes on to ask, “Do you think that anyone will know who Marie of Roumania was in fifty years’ time? Will anyone care?” Of course we have to answer with a pair of firm “noes.” From what I gathered thanks to Google, Marie was the most famous woman of her time, our Princess Diana a century ago. Whom no one will remember in fifty years either. This is the wisdom that comes only with awareness of our encroaching mortality. Lux’s Dorothy Parker was wise—too wise for her own good.