Four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening brings her movie-star glamour and a career-long commitment to the legitimate stage to the Geffen Playhouse in Ruth Draper’s Monologues, as captivating and deliciously performed a one-woman show as you’re likely to see all year.
Though the name Ruth Draper may have faded into relative obscurity, a bit of research reveals the stage star’s several decades of early 20th-century fame, based primarily on Draper’s ability to transform herself into a multitude of characters, everyone from teenagers to dowagers, in a series of self-penned performance pieces, four of which the divine Miss Benning brings back to vivid 21st-century life under her own inspired direction.
First up is “A Class In Greek Poise,” which has a classically-robed Benning/Draper instructing a quartet of overweight society matrons in fitness and elegance as these arts have been preserved for the ages in statues and friezes, and this includes maintaining that titular poise even in case of fallen bloomers. (“We’re all friends here. That might happen to anyone. Elastic is of a very poor quality these days.”)
Benning then sheds decades of life experience as a sweet young thing just coming out into high society in “Débutante At A Dance.” “I talk and talk. I absolutely talk my head off,” the flighty deb informs a potential beau, “and half the time people don’t even listen!”
The young gentlemen paying court may not be hanging onto this débutante’s every word, but such is hardly the case for anyone fortunate enough to have secured tickets to the latest Benning-Geffen collaboration (following her star turns in Hedda Gabler and The Female Of The Species).
Next up come Draper’s musings on health and the medical profession in “Doctors And Diets.”
After first discovering that every single one of her three luncheon companions is at present on a diet (one drinks only lemon juice, another sticks to a cold-boiled turnip, and the third want only carrots with the greens left on), our hostess (who will limit herself to three chocolate éclairs and not one more) goes on to recall a certain “Miss Idgett, whose doctor informed her in no uncertain terms that she ‘needed purple’ in her diet. And he said he would not account for the consequences unless she got purple into her without any delay.” Details follow, and hilariously so.
Last up is Draper’s most famous monolog, “The Italian Lesson,” which has society’s busiest wife and mother getting hardly more than a few stanzas into Dante before one distraction after another keeps her mind anywhere but on the translating at hand. Whether finalizing a dinner menu, quieting her rambunctious children, welcoming a new puppy into her household, or informing her son’s teacher of the reason for the boy’s recent spate of bad dreams (“The psychoanalyst tells me that is a very dangerous symptom and I must try to remove the cause, which is undoubtedly Arithmetic), Bening doesn’t miss a beat … though the Italian lesson in question most certainly does.
Scenic designer Takeshi Kata frames Ruth Draper’s Monologues inside an old-fashioned gilt proscenium arch, behind whose green velvet curtains assorted pieces of furniture glide on and off stage to suggest the play’s four settings, Bening’s discreet onstage costume changes revealing each of designer Catherine Zuber’s four character-revealing outfits. Daniel Ionazzi lights to subtle perfection.
Still, if ever there were a one-person show which would be nearly as splendid without any design falderal, it is Ruth Draper’s Monologues, the reason for which can be expressed in a single name.
Annette Bening’s twenty-five year film career may have been highlighted by Oscar-nominated star turns in The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are All Right and her personal life by a high-profile marriage to Warren Beatty, but the Hollywood star’s stage career goes back even father, and unlike certain other film luminaries with a background in stage work, Bening has continued to make regular returns the Geffen, the Mark Taper Forum, and UCLA’s Freud Playhouse—and Los Angeles audiences are the luckier for her contributions to our theater community.
Bening simply could not be more mesmerizing throughout Ruth Draper’s Monologues’ virtually nonstop ninety minutes, creating such vivid images with Draper’s words that one might almost leave the Geffen believing the star had been surrounded onstage by Draper’s myriad unseen characters—the Greek Poise instructor’s Rubenesque students, the débutante’s attentive swain, the lunch hostess’s diet-conscious companions, and the Italian language devotee’s eclectic entourage. Audiences might rush to the Geffen because it’s ANNETTE BENING they’ll be seeing live onstage, but they’ll be spreading word of the Geffen’s latest because they saw one fabulously entertaining production.
That it’s a bona fide movie star bringing Ruth Draper’s Monologues to life turns out to be icing on four sumptuous pieces of cake.
Lurie Horns Pfeffer is production stage manager. Elizabeth A. Brohm is assistant stage manager. Linda Bernstein Rubin is producing partner.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through May 18. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 310 208-5454
April 17, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont