Before Lily Tomlin, before Anna Deavere Smith, before Eve Ensler and a host of other performance artists, there was Ruth Draper, monologuist.
Draper's nearly 40-year career began in the drawing rooms of the Manhattan elite in 1920 and took her around the world to perform her one-woman shows before kings and presidents. A groundbreaking performer in her day, Draper satirized the social circles in which she moved. One of her most successful pieces is "The Italian Lesson," an amusing look at a pampered Park Avenue matron with too many things to do.
This monologue is receiving a respectable staging at Rep Stage on a double bill with . . . "The Italian Lesson," an opera by Lee Hoiby. It's not often that you get to see material reconsidered in the same evening, let alone reconsidered as a one-woman opera supported by an 11-piece orchestra. The effect is interesting, if not wholly successful.
In Draper's original, directed by Jackson Phippin, actress Valerie Lash (formerly Costantini) portrays the matron as the kind of aristocrat so often lampooned in Marx Brothers comedies. She trills her lines with infinite patience and cheer as she patronizes children and servants alike. Being far too self-important to realize how trivial her concerns really are, she thinks nothing of asking her poor Italian instructor to wait and wait and wait while she invites endless distractions from her husband, friends, offspring, cook, butler, social secretary, manicurist and the like.
It's a welcome introduction to the work of a neglected writer. Too bad Rep Stage did not pair it with other work by Draper or her contemporaries. For my money, putting it on the same bill as the opera version benefits neither piece. As Lash performs it, the scene is quite funny, but when it's sung by Deborah Kent, the humor seems to dissipate. Whether that's because we know exactly what's coming or because the material does not really lend itself to this kind of adaptation I am not sure. It does seem an odd choice for a libretto, and Hoiby's score, which at times obliges Kent to sing-speak lengthy portions of the text at the same high note, is a bit of an endurance test for anyone who is not an opera fan.
The other oddity of the evening is the piano duet that serves as a curtain-raiser -- Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story." Rep Stage bills the entire evening as "The Italian Lesson and Other Divertissements," and clearly the idea is to mimic the kind of entertainments Draper knew well performing in London salons or the homes of wealthy friends. On such evenings, music and theater were frequently on the same program. But selections from "West Side Story"? If there is some link here to Draper's monologue or Hoiby's opera, I fail to see it.
The Italian Lesson, by Ruth Draper. Libretto adapted by Mark Shulgasser, score by Lee Hoiby. Directed by Jackson Phippin. Piano duet by John Musto, based on the score by Leonard Bernstein. With piano performances by Kristina Suter and Lisa Rehwoldt. Set and props by Robert Marietta. Lighting by Sean Pringle. Costumes by Kristina Lambdin. Through Feb. 16 at Rep Stage, in residence at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900.