ARLINGTON -- Don't let Carol Burnett's name under the title fool you. This is not a comedy.
There are a few humorous moments in Hollywood Arms, which opened Friday at Theatre Arlington. But this semi-autobiographical drama from the pen of the great comedienne is nothing to joke about. Her childhood and early adult years, the period covered in this play, were apparently woefully short of good times.
After a brief setting of scene by the adult Burnett (here known as Helen and played by Mikaela Krantz), we pick up the future star's life just as she (Ingrid Fease as the very young Helen) and her tough ol' Texas grandmother, Nanny (Trich Zaitoon) move to Hollywood to reunite with Helen's mother, Louise (Lindsay Hayward) -- an obviously star-struck dreamer and schemer who drinks too much and earns too little. She is also no better at dealing with men than she is children. There are three romantic interests in her life -- her well-meaning, but fatally weak ex-husband, Jody (David Cook); the loving but unloved Bill (Eric Porter); and the unseen wannabe movie star, Neil. She somehow manages those relationships in such a way that everybody loses.
This production, directed by Melanie Mason, offers a number of fine performances. Krantz, who is seen almost exclusively in the second act, steals the show by delivering its best scene: a hilarious bit where Helen, working as a movie usher, winds up reenacting an entire film for a restive audience after a projector goes on the fritz. It is great theatre and it perfectly fits Burnett's legend.
Zaitoon is extremely natural and consistent as Helen's no-nonsense granny. She maintains a firm grip on her character without ever letting on that she is squeezing tight.
Hayward is also well-cast as the tragically flawed Louise. In the first act, she is glamorous and vibrant (despite her mercurial ways). In the second act, she is a decaying drunk. But she handles the extremes of the role beautifully. Her efforts are enhanced by a lot of attention to detail about her look. Her costuming, by Ric Leal, and hair are perfectly matched to the particular peak or valley her character is experiencing.
The men are mostly afterthoughts in this piece, but both Cook and Porter do about as much as they can with their parts.
Also worthy of special mention is the set by Bob Lavallee, which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
The problem with this show is that it is a soap opera we have seen too many times. The Great Depression, into which Burnett was born, produced thousands of stories like this one and most of them have been told. This drama is yet another reminder that the 1930s were not just a time of discomfort. The poverty and desperation of that period broke people like matchsticks and shattered families in ways that went far beyond economic issues.
It is a shock to see that a person as full of joy as Burnett has always seemed to be could have emerged from such a difficult past. But that does not mean it makes a good story.
The show, which is based on Burnett's memoir One More Time written by Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, has almost as many problems as its characters. The first act is brutally long. And some of the play's most passionate moments just come off as lame clichés (at one point Helen actually tells Louise that she loves the bottle more than she loves her), even though they may have been very real to the authors.
If you are a die-hard fan of Burnett, you may be curious about this show. But be aware that your curiosity will be rewarded with a well-acted and directed, but ultimately ordinary, suds-fest of butt-numbing duration.