Volume 73, Number 42 | February 18 - 24, 2004

Theater

‘The Ladies’
Dixon Place at Chashama
111 West 42nd Street
212-219-0736.
thru Feb. 29

‘Summit Conference’
Urban Stages
259 West 30th Street
212-695-5131.
thru Feb. 28


Infamous women converge Off-Off Broadway

By JERRY TALLMER

Photo By Carol Rosegg

From left, Sarah Megan Thomas and Rita Pietropinto appear as ‘Eva Braun’ and ‘Clara Petacci,’ mistresses of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the Robert David MacDonald play, ‘Summit Conference.’

In the early 1960s the Dragon Lady of South Vietnam, Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu, born Tran Le Xuan, or “Beautiful Spring” — she who had relished the “barbecues” of all those monks who’d immolated themselves in protest against the Saigon dictatorship — passed through New York on her way to Rome, dropping scathing remarks en route about weak-kneed America and its President Kennedy, whom she blamed for the assassination of her husband and brother-in-law.

A young reporter was sent to interview her. I remember that reporter’s lead sentence: “She is the world’s first truly liberated woman.” I also remember the reporter’s name: Nora Ephron.

Well, Mme. Nhu wasn’t exactly the first. You might say she had some competition even in her own lifetime from Mme. Chiang-kai Shek, Mme. Mao Tse-sung, Eva Peron, and a number of other wives or consorts of powerful men.

Now, curiously, there are two plays that have opened Off-Off-Broadway within 24 hours and 12 blocks of one another, one of them dealing with four such ladies, and called, all simply, “The Ladies”; the other, “Summit Conference,” bringing face to face two other women who are no less implanted in history.

They are (to take the latter two first) Adolf Hitler’s Eva Braun and Benito Mussolini’s Clara Petacci, in an imagined confrontation wherein Clara calls upon Eva in the Chancery in Berlin in 1941, and the two famous mistresses spend 90 beautiful bitchy minutes putting down each other and each other’s national attributes.

This needle-sharp drama, by the Scottish playwright Robert David MacDonald, comes to us by way of Glasgow and London, where 22 years ago it starred no less than Glenda Jackson as a Scarlett O’Hara-quoting Eva Braun, Georgina Hale as Bette Davis-quoting Clara Petacci, and Gary Oldman as the young German soldier on guard who turns out to be a Polish-born Jew vulnerable to their sexual baiting.

In the show here at Urban Stages, on West 30th Street, the actors under Kit Thacker’s direction are Sarah Megan Thomas, Rita Petropinto, and Eric Altheide.

“The Ladies” is quite a different cup of tea.

Its four famous figures are Elena Ceausescu of Romania (1919-1989); Imelda Marcos, “Steel Butterfly” of the Philippines who was born in 1929; Eva Peron of Argentina (1919-1952); and an Anna Karenina-worshipping Jiang Qing (Mme. Mao) of China (1914-1991).

But there are also two other characters in “The Ladies,” very much so, two sprightly young women now in their 30s, and they are none other than Anne Washburn, the author of this script, and Anne Kauffman, who directs it.

In short, walking and talking the stage at Dixon Place at Chashama, on West 42nd Street, are an actress named Jennifer Dundas, playing playwright Washburn, and an actress named Jennifer R. Morris, playing director Kauffman — two Jennifers playing two Annes, as it happens.

And — except for a few long and vivid soliloquies, revelations of character taken directly from research sources — these two do at least as much self-examining self-exposure as the play’s Elena Ceausescu (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Imelda Marcos (Alison Weller), Eva Peron (Maria Striar), or Jiang Qing (Nina Hellman).

The play is a remarkable blend (or you might say mishigas) of historic fact, invented or partially invented emotion (of the Four Famed Ones), and casual on-the-spot recorded and transcribed spontaneous dialogue betwixt the Two Others, playwright and director.

Who one afternoon last week sat side by side and said:

WASHBURN: “By juxtaposing scenes where the two of us are being giddy and careless with scenes in which something quite terrible is happening . . . “

KAUFFMAN: “ . . . we make it known that we really don’t know what we’re playing with. Something has been unleashed - -an element of fire.”

WASHBURN: “The transcribed research material ended up like this” (holds hands 6 inches apart).

KAUFFMAN: “Make that a foot, and two and a half years. What struck me about these four women was that their backgrounds and elements of their personality were very similar. They all sort of started out from rural areas and fought their way to the big cities. Several had been performers — had backgrounds, or at least rumors, of questionable sexual practices — and all had attached themselves to very powerful men in countries that either became or were already dictatorships. Could these women wield that power in a democratic society?”

Is that question answered in your play, ladies? It doesn’t seem so.

KAUFFMAN: “No, it’s not, but that’s where it started.”

WASHBURN: “The original question became a structural question. We were still trying to work out what the structure of the play was, what the meaning of the play was . . . The play is really how we think about these women.”

KAUFFMAN: “I find myself incredibly timid in getting what I want, So I find myself very impressed with these women getting what they want in the face of so many more obstacles than I face. Making their mark. Like Imelda Marcos — “

You must like shoes.

KAUFFMAN: “I do actually like shoes, but I have bad feet, so I wear clogs.”

WASHBURN: “I think these women are ballsy as hell, but I find their desperation to be difficult, depressing. They’re survivors — people who have gone on from NOTHING, and survived. I just feel they overshot. I can’t admire them. I do judge them, but I can’t dismiss them.”

KAUFFMAN: “Having somebody play you in a play is the ultimate form of flattery. It’s a great thing for our parents. It’s one thing to have your daughter playing on stage, it’s another to have her being PLAYED.”

What did your mother say?

KAUFFMAN: “She came up and said: ‘I hope you don’t believe all that.’ “

In “Summit Conference,” Robert David MacDonald lets Eva Braun and Clara Petacci — and that soldier — do the talking.

EVA: My friend says the Pope is very difficult to deal with.

CLARA: Pacelli? No, no. He is so worried about the Russians and being made a saint, he gives no trouble to anyone. He is also . . . you know . . . pederast.

EVA: I don’t believe it.

CLARA: Of course not. You put them in prison, don’t you?

EVA: Indeed we do.

CLARA: I’m surprised you still got an army.


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