Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give, Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
Dorothy Parker made wit into a trademark and self-hatred into an art. Disappointed in love, in her work and in her efforts to be taken seriously, she was too smart to accept cleverness as wisdom but not smart enough to recognize her own abilities. "Till Ends My Rope: A Visit With Dorothy Parker," a one-woman show written and performed by Atlanta actress Theresa O'Shea, is a visit with a complex, neurotic, fleetingly brilliant woman whose self-deprecation made her a tragic figure.
Yet, as the verse above indicates, Parker always put a cork on melodrama in her writing, something that O'Shea fails to do. Originally a project for a master's degree, the one-hour and 45-minute program portrays a lachrymose Dorothy Parker on the eve of her 50th birthday, a tremulous creature given to maudlin ramblings that are slightly embarrassing.
O'Shea has focused on Parker the serious writer as opposed to the wisecracking sophisticate who said things like this of her apartment: "All I need is enough space to lay my hat . . . and a few friends." O'Shea weaves in long passages from some of Parker's short stories, a device that is initially confusing as she shifts from the persona of Parker into the voice of "Just a Little One" (from the collection called "Here Lies").
Parker, ne'e Rothschild, started as a writer of captions for Vogue magazine. Later she wrote reviews for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and became a member of "the smart set." Her lunch group at the Algonquin, Parker/O'Shea relates, originally wanted to call itself after its favorite waiter: the Luigi Board. Instead it became known as the Roundtable (later the Vicious Circle) and she became known as a wit. As in this response to a challenge to make a sentence using the word horticulture: "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think."
Her reputation as a funny lady stunted 10 years of political involvement in race relations, anti-fascism, and communism. "Everyone waits for the punch line," she laments. Her left-wing activities prevented her from getting a passport to be a war correspondent. She regarded her screenplays as trivial, and her three best-selling books of poetry equally unsatisfactory.
Her few short stories, however, were her real love. O'Shea includes an excerpt from "A Telephone Call," for example, which is the most accurate evocation of the torment of unrequited love and the cruelty of a cad ever penned by a modern writer.
For dramatic purposes, however, the excerpt is too long, one of the weaknesses of the script. As an actress, O'Shea is uneasy, a problem heightened by the many emotional scenes she has written into the script. And while I bow to the superior knowledge of a master's candidate, I question such a melodramatic interpretation of a woman who was so expert at the dry, unsentimental prose that can ultimately be more moving than breast-beating, literary or otherwise.
"Till Ends My Rope" plays today at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1:30 and 3 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery, no admission charge.