Theater review

Theater review: 'Legends!' at Studio Theatre

drama queens: Sylvia Glenn (James Lecesne), Leatrice Monsee (John Epperson a.k.a. Lypsinka) and Aretha (Roz White) in Studio Theatre's
drama queens: Sylvia Glenn (James Lecesne), Leatrice Monsee (John Epperson a.k.a. Lypsinka) and Aretha (Roz White) in Studio Theatre's "Legends!" (Scott Suchman)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lypsinka's "Legends!" is a happy, daffy wreck, an hour and a half of that special brand of rampant silliness that comes of trying to make mincemeat of a stinky old play. If the comic results don't always rise to the priceless plateau this sparkling drag entertainer is capable of, you can make do with the intermittent pleasures of an evening that whirs about as often as it wobbles.

The brainchild of Lypsinka's everyday persona, John Epperson, the production at Studio Theatre takes on James Kirkwood's sclerotic comedy of the same title. Things didn't go well for the vehicle or its feuding stars, Mary Martin and Carol Channing, when it went on tour in the mid-1980s. As a consequence of Kirkwood's memoir of the experience, the play achieved a sort of cherished status in the theater, that of timeless turkey.

Epperson's comedic strategy is to recast the "Legends!" lead characters -- fading Hollywood drama queens Leatrice Monsee and Sylvia Glenn -- with men in ladies' frocks. So the imperious Lypsinka, she of the meaningful sidelong glances, now takes on the role of demure, good-girl Leatrice. Opposite her, James Lecesne portrays earthy, loudmouthed Sylvia, her longtime Tinseltown rival. Think of them as the polar extremes of a bygone studio star system: a death match between Olivia de Havilland and Lana Turner. The Lady versus the Tramp.

This sets us up for major juiciness. Yet in Epperson's reworking of the script, the stars lack the verbal arsenal to take their war nuclear. (The adapter tosses in a lot of swipes at current or almost-current pop figures, such as Whitney Houston and the late Anna Nicole Smith, but these, too, need to be zingers of more slashing impact.)

So this clash of the titans never scales the trashiest, cattiest heights. Perhaps it's the handicap of the source material, or a blurriness of intention: You're never sure whether "Legends!" is meant to be a full-out parody of Kirkwood's play, or a veiled lampoon of the Martin-Channing disaster, or a broadly comic drag showcase, as in the plays of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch.

Whatever else Epperson has in mind, "Legends!" does reveal to us another side of Lypsinka's talent: She speaks in her own voice! The character's raison d'etre has long been as a gesturing conduit for the spoken and sung recordings of all of those self-invented, powerhouse women of the stage and screen, such as Ethel Merman and Joan Crawford. Here, Epperson tries to maintain the illusion of Lypsinka as a gutsy star in her own right; in the program, she gets billing on the title page and in the cast list.

It's illuminating, though, that her full force is felt not in the starchy dialogue scenes of "Legends!" but in two purer, wordless Lypsinka moments: first, upon her entrance, in an intense halo and with magic-of-the-movies fanfare, and later, in the production's sole lip-synced number. Her features brighten in these instances, as if suddenly beaming out from a 1,000-watt dressing-room mirror.

The sketch-like conceit of "Legends!" -- at times, you are put in mind of something written for Carol Burnett, or maybe even Tracey Ullman -- has Leatrice and Sylvia meeting in a luxe New York apartment, as the omniscient housekeeper Aretha (the excellent Roz White) fusses and frowns.

In a pouffy black wig and tight metallic dress, Sylvia bears a resemblance to the Liz Taylor of several epochs ago, and Leatrice, wearing form-fitting purple, a floral yellow brooch and red tresses sculpted into what looks like an exotic dessert, gives off a hint of Christine Baranski via Audrey Meadows.

Their reputations and earning power on the wane, both are entertaining offers from Tom Story's skeevy Martin Klemmer to co-star in a new play; Leatrice's contemplation of whether it's as bad as the one they're performing for us is one of the show's better running gags. And that's about it, as far as plot.

Yes, Epperson and director Kirk Jackson inject a welcome dash of theatrical kitsch in the form of a male stripper (Leo Christopher Sheridan) who, for the sake of gratuitous disrobing, arrives at the flat to uncover, well, just about everything. Story is accorded a bravura riff when Klemmer goes into a Looney Tunes frenzy, courtesy of a helping of hash brownies. (Since when, though, is hashish a psychedelic drug?)

All the carrying-on is just tickling enough to distract us from the evening's obvious seams. Speaking of which, costume designer Fabio Toblini is aces in his evocation of Leatrice's meticulously put-together looks, as well as Sylvia's sexier getups. For his part, Lecesne proves a worthy foil for Lypsinka. Still, this version of "Legends!" could use a bit of a rewrite, helping its stars even more completely express their inner divas.

Legends!

by James Kirkwood, edited by John Epperson. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Sets, Dan Conway; lighting, Michael Giannitti; sound, Gil Thompson; fight choreography, Robb Hunter. About 90 minutes. Through July 4 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.orgor call 202-332-3300.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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