Lypsinka gives James Kirkwood's 'Legends!' a face-lift at Studio Theatre

DUELING DIVAS: James Lecesne, left, and John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, in the infamous play.
DUELING DIVAS: James Lecesne, left, and John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, in the infamous play. (Scott Suchman)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 19, 2010

Despite being one of the most notorious stage debacles in recent history, "Legends!" never dies. Playwright James Kirkwood intuited a bizarre indestructibility about his catty showbiz valentine -- a comedy involving two feuding Hollywood divas on the skids -- in his memoir chronicling the snakebitten national tour headlined by Carol Channing and Mary Martin in 1986.

Plagued by the 73-year-old Martin's near-paralyzing difficulty learning lines (for months a bug in her ear transmitted her dialogue from offstage) and enough sensational backbiting to fuel a half-dozen reality TV shows, the play still made decent money barnstorming the country. Late in the year-long tour, Kirkwood noted that at least the show had kept going "regardless of the countless gaffes."

"Perhaps," Kirkwood wrote in "Diary of a Mad Playwright," his funny and bitter 1989 book, "that's just the kind of freak this play is and will always be."

There was a bit of prophecy in that. Not only did history repeat as "Dynasty" co-stars Joan Collins and Linda Evans teamed up for another high-profile calamity tour four years ago, but now "Legends!" is in radical rehab here at the Studio Theatre. Two men are taking on the roles that have so utterly derailed major divas.

This version has been a long time coming, both for John Epperson, the lip-syncing drag artist Lypsinka, who wrote the current adaptation, and for Kirkwood's play. Kirkwood, who died the year his book came out, was a showbiz vet (and an author of "A Chorus Line") who grew up knowing vintage movie stars, and he used them as templates. So Kirkwood was thrown when director Mike Nichols saw the script and said he could envision it played by two men in drag.

Fast-forward 20 years and enter Epperson, who was recruited to do a staged reading of "Legends!" 10 years ago in Maine. Epperson played Leatrice Monsee, the goody two-shoes of the duo, and the process of tweaking the script for men in drag captured his imagination. He had to put his notion on ice as the Collins-Evans tour lumbered to life, but he eventually secured permission to do a one-night-only reading in New York, with Charles Busch playing Sylvia Glenn (renowned for slutty roles, a contrast with the nuns habitually played by Leatrice). Whoopi Goldberg was announced as Sylvia's black maid, Aretha -- an element of the play that has frequently gnawed at detractors -- but fell ill at the last moment.

"The curse of 'Legends!' all over again," the lean, almost delicate Epperson sighs, sitting in a cozy nook of the Studio's downstairs lobby.

Still, the reading went on, and Epperson managed to pique interest at the Studio, where such Lypsinka shows as "Lypsinka: The Boxed Set" and "The Passion of the Crawford" have played over the past decade. "I think he's a national treasure," Founding Artistic Director Joy Zinoman volunteers of Epperson and his stage persona.

But this interest led to a negotiation with the Kirkwood estate that the Studio honchos characterize as unusually prolonged -- Associate Producing Artistic Director Serge Seiden brandishes an e-mail trail going back to late 2008. The negotiation seems to involve a combination of royalty issues -- the play is billed as "by James Kirkwood, edited by John Epperson" -- and a concern on the part of the estate wondering just how far this drag adaptation will go.

Yet Epperson and his "Legends!" colleagues sound surprisingly loyal to Kirkwood's script, balking at any suggestion that it's open season on the play. Epperson has shortened the work -- it used to be two acts, now it's a trim 90 minutes, and a character has been cut -- while expanding the role of Aretha (played at the Studio by Rosalind "Roz" White). Punch lines and showbiz references have been updated in a way that will be immediately apparent to audiences. Epperson isn't sure exactly how much the script has changed; his best reckoning is "a lot."

But he adds, "I tried to keep Kirkwood's sense of the absurd, his sense of humor."

Director Kirk Jackson declares that he likes the basic structure of Kirkwood's piece, and James Lecesne, playing Leatrice, says, "Yes, it's a bad play, but it's a wonderful vehicle for performance." Lecesne also invokes the canny drag parodies of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company: "You can have a flashy, Ridiculous vehicle," Lecesne suggests, "that enables performances to reveal something that's true."

Indeed, while Epperson's shows are typically riotous, there's also "an intellectual underpinning that's important to him," says Seiden -- a meta-theatrical distancing that throws open all kinds of questions about role-playing and identity construction. "It has to start a little outside of it for it to be Lypsinka at all," Seiden explains. "It's sticking to those rules that define the brand."

Whether Lypsinka's brand is the stuff of "Legends!" remains to be seen; Seiden agrees that this production is a test case, and the rights for this adaptation do not extend beyond this run at Studio. Epperson hopes for more, of course, but he shows far more equanimity than Kirkwood displayed in his vinegary memoir, which included photos of the author as wild-eyed and bound by a straitjacket. At worst Epperson says, "I'll have gotten it out of my system."

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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