Volume 78 / Number 11, August 13 - 19, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933

Theater

THAT DOROTHY PARKER
Written and performed by Carol Lempert
Directed by Janice Goldberg
A presentation of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival

Photo credit Joe Teplitz

Carol Lempert wrote and stars in “That Dorothy Parker,” a presentation of this summer’s New York Fringe Festival, on stage at the SoHo Playhouse.

She might as well have lived—and did

Dorothy Parker visits the Fringe Fest

By Jerry Tallmer

A couple of days after Dorothy Parker committed suicide the first time— tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists – she was visited in the hospital by her dear friend and fellow Algonquinite Robert Benchley.

“Welcome, Mr. Benchley,” she said. “Could you do me a favor pretty please and  press that little ole button marked Nurse? Why? Well, it will give us 45 minutes of undisturbed privacy.”

Anybody who has ever been in a hospital will know how true that can be.

She would attempt suicide three times in all, and write many terse, remarkable poems about it, including this famous one …
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramps.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
 
 … but would in the end die of heart attack, at 74, in 1967, outliving all her compeers of the Algonquin’s Round Table except Heywood Broun.

 It was an even dearer friend, Alexander Wolcott, who had introduced Dorothy Parker to Charles MacArthur, a hotshot journalist/playwright from Chicago, as “our Mrs. Parker, a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth,”  and it was MacArthur who had knocked her up and then contributed $30 toward the abortion (“like Judas making a refund,” she said) that led to her first suicide attempt.

 Dear beloved Alec Wolcott, the original Man Who Came to Dinner, wit, drama critic, radio’s gossipy Town Crier, the Round Table’s “Queen of all he surveyed … an enormous owl [with] the soul of a peacock … I liked him immediately,” she would write. Now, in 1943, Alec himself is dead, at 57, and his funeral is where “That Dorothy Parker,” a sharp, sad, funny play and solo performance by Carol Lempert, begins. It’s a Fringe Festival entry on five dates in August at the SoHo Playhouse on Vandam Street.

 Like Wolcott, like Benchley, like all of them, Dorothy Parker was many things – poet, critic, playwright, journalist, war correspondent, screenwriter, essayist—but all of those and other capabilities all sprouting from the one main stem:  writer. And writing is very hard work. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, who told his pal Dot Parker he’d rewritten the end of “A Farewell to Arms” 70 times and still wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

 “It takes me 6 months to do a story,” she herself was to say. “At least 3 days to complete a piece of verse. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” Wit? They were all witty; that was their stock in trade. But wit is one thing—“Wit has truth in it”—while wise-cracking “is simply calisthenics with words.” God knows they were good at that too.

 “All I knew about Dorothy Parker in the beginning,” says Carol Lempert, the Detroit-born young woman who in fact looks a little like one’s image of Dorothy Parker, “was that she’d written for The New Yorker and had tried to kill herself.  This play has been sitting with me, bubbling in me, a long time.”

 It might never have come to more than that if her husband, Toronto-based actor and sketch comedian Scotty Watson, hadn’t “thought I was funny, had a knack and good timing” and invited her into his vaudeville troupe. So I decided, if I’m going to be a comedian, I’ll have to study.”  And that’s where, in a collection of pieces by Parker, she hit upon one called “The Waltz”—a short story all in the voice of the neurotic wallflower who turns aside every request for a dance.

 That started Ms. Lempert reading everything by and about Dorothy Parker she could lay her hands on, including four biographies, mainly the 1987 one by Marion Meade, and digging up TV shows and movies for which Mrs. Parker had received screen credits, notably the first (1937) “A Star Is Born.” directed by William A. Wellman.  There was also Aviva Slesin’s good 1987 documentary, “The 10-Year Lunch,” all about the Round Table. Between acting jobs and other jobs Ms. Lempert would try out her rendition of “The Waltz” in her living room while thinking maybe there’s a show in here.”

 And, of course, there was. The first successful exposures, some 10 years ago, were at the Toronto Fringe Fesival and the San Francisco Fringe Festival. So now it’s New York.

 “She was, you know, the Madonna of her time—famous, sexy, and rich ...”

 And Jewish, an interviewer throws in. Dorothy Rothschild Parker.

 “Half Jewish.. Her mother was English, her father a German Jew.”

 Talk to me like Dorothy Parker, the interviewer  said.

 “I’d like to have a martini,” Ms. Lempert growled, tough as nails.

 “What struck me more and more about Dorothy Parker,” says the woman who plays her, “was the tension between the public self—the party girl, fun! fun! fun! Give me another drink!—and the strong feeling in her work.”

 Nowhere has that strong feeling been in more carefully constrained evidence than in Dorothy Parker’s dispatches from Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, in particular a piece called “Soldiers of the Republic” that jolted this reader to the core, back when he was a teenager, and still does to this day.

It is a simple – put quotes around that “simple”—report, or narrative, about having some drinks with a handful of battle-worn Loyalist soldiers—short, dusty, anonymous looking, quiet-spoken men who haven’s seen their wives and children for more than a year and don’t know if those wives and children are alive or dead. That’s all. And between the lines, those carefully controlled lines by the American correspondent, one’s emotions mount and mount until you get to the last line of all, a straightforward declarative seven-word English sentence, and then the grenade—the emotional grenade—goes off.

 If for nothing else, that makes Carol Lempert’s “That Dorothy Parker” well worth seeing.
 
THAT DOROTHY PARKER.  By, and performed by, Carol Lempert.  Directed by Janice Goldberg. A presentation of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival and the Present Company at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, (212) 691-1555, or (866) 468-7619, or www.fringenyc.org.
 

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