As Dorothy Parker was apt to inquire whenever her phone rang, “And what fresh hell is THIS?” Well, in terms of the hapless happenings of the four subjects of these one-acts, that’s pretty much what unfolds in each of their sorry stories which, I must confess, was rather fascinating to observe last night at the preview my theater going companion and I attended.
Rider McDowell, a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco chronicle and novelist turned playwright/ director here has uncovered the last 48 hours in the lives of 4 individuals who had once experienced various forms of celebrity, some of which has proved affectionately lasting, yet came to their demise in most unhappy circumstances. This is ODE TO THE WASP WOMAN playing at the Actors Temple Theatre 339 W. 47th St. from November 9th, 2023 through Jan. 31st, 2024. Purchase ticke
The first act deals with the actor who all those of my generation came to laugh at with glee for his misadventures on screen as Alfalfa of “The Little Rascals”, filmed in the 30’s and broadcast in the ‘50’s and evermore on any television of any size that has come to be. His actual name was Carl Switzer, and he was indeed a comic player of considerable skills quite evidently as a pre-teen young man in the series, yet also as an adolescent and beyond, as Frank Capra chose to feature him in that maestro’s Magnum Opus,” IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” as the jilted would-be lover/dancer to Donna Reed’s Mary at the High School graduation extended scene where George( Jimmy S.) steals her on the dance floor. This leads to Switzer’s lamenting character responding to “ What’s the matter, Othello? Jealous?”, by opening the floor revealing the gigantic swimming pool beneath.
Yeah, Switzer is going to be watched for as long as anyone cares about “The Greatest Gift”, or how American children related about anything in the third decade of the 20th century. So, how did this beloved fellow end up dead from a gunshot to his groin when he was still a young man? That is indeed the theme of these four tales of star-crossed stars. I must remark here that the actor portraying this unlucky bastard does a terrific job and his name is JOSH ALSCHER. He is also featured generously in the next story that deals with the title of the show and does exceptionally well there too.
So, the 2nd act deals with the Wasp Woman, herself and is portrayed with aplomb by the program’s featured star, Sean Young. Mr. Alscher plays her rather troubled /damaged at birth son and an unholy alliance ensues. Susan Cabot was a beautiful screen siren that Roger Corman catapulted to B Movie fame playing the title character of “The Wasp Woman” and for whatever reasons the film industry had, that was apparently the pinnacle of her career.
She, early in her short-lived marriage gave birth to Timothy, who unfortunately manifested signs of dwarfism shortly after his birth. Well, Ms. Cabot was not about to have any of THAT, and embarked on a series of injection treatments for her son well into his 20’s that apparently had the effect of increasing his crippled stature to an almost average size but tortured him throughout his life in both physical and emotional immeasurable pain. What occurs in Timmy’s 23rd year of living at home with his smothering mother and the last 48 hours of the titular character’s life is on this well enacted stage for you to behold.
Ms. Young, whom we must remember has beguiled the public with not merely her formidable beauty, but serious acting chops in over three dozen feature films, several of which are iconic, does a bang-up job and achieves the paradox of comic pathos and discomforting social horror that would rival Mr. Corman’s cinema output. This debut is long overdue, and one hopes augers her returning to more stage vehicles here, and wherever she may be wisely engaged for that matter.
Now comes the third installment of these unhappy departures from our planet and this one involved the most famous staff member of The Daily Planet: George Reeves and his complicated relationship with “The Adventures of Superman”. How vividly I recall when, as a ten-year-old on his way to Boone School in Chicago some friends and I happen to come across that day’s Chicago Tribune in June of 1959 above the fold headline replete with a photo of Reeves in Superman’s uniform, the news of his suicide by pistol. “It must have been a Kryptonite bullet!”, we agreed in our shock and profound dismay. Like the playwright’s own testimony in his program notes, it was a shock from which none who watched and loved every episode and found his portrayal of the seemingly immortal character the most charming, heroic, intelligent, tasteful and utterly convincing of ALL that came before or AFTER, for that matter, as good as the later lamented Christopher Reeve( strange of their names similarities)was.
George Reeves was one hell of an actor! He was on a serious upward professional climb, playing by 1942’s “So Proudly We Hail!”, a war film of considerable distinction, the love interest of no one less than Claudette Colbert. Then his career got sidelined by his army recruitment in the actual war, and since, unlike Stewart, Gable, Power, or Fonda, et al who were already Bonafide stars, never got the momentum back to the career trajectory he ‘d had.
By 1951, he first portrayed “the man of steel” in “Superman And The Mole Men” as a pilot for the series. Shortly thereafter he had a featured role in “From Here To Eternity” and under Fred Zinnemann’s award winning direction, distinguished himself by more than holding his own, particularly in a pivotal scene he had with Burt Lancaster….he’s simply superb in it.
I make these points simply to illustrate that Reeves was fully aware of his potential as an artist and a star. How events unfolded in his life and career that led to his controversial death (was it suicide?) is part and parcel of this staging of Reeves story and his last 48 hours.
DOUGLAS EVERETT DAVIS provides an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of this truly tragic figure, who remains beloved by multiple generations of fans by the millions around our “daily planet”. ANNA TELFER as Leonore Lemmon, Reeves’ last love affair, and RITA LOUISE as Toni Mannix who had been Reeves’ paramour earlier both do compelling work as their characters who managed to enhance and destroy Reeves’ sense of self-respect. JONATHAN HARTMAN and DAVID WENZEL, as well as the aforementioned, Josh Alscher credibly offer supporting roles in this ensemble narrative.
And lastly, perhaps the most pathetic of these cautionary tales: Barbara Payton, who is superlatively portrayed by the incontrovertibly alluring PAYTON GEORGIANA. How someone that lovely could make decisions that foolish and fall that far so fast, although partially explained by the abuse she withstood at home, unfolds like a train wreck in slow motion. I’m sure that the pace of this section has already picked up by the time I’ve written this, but regardless, Ms. Georgianna’s presence is riveting throughout.
And there you have it. That’s the “fresh hell” Ms. Parker would speak of and if you’ve the required curiosity, and indeed, considerable affection for any of these personages, and are either dwelling or visiting midtown Manhattan between now and the end of January of 2024, give this a go, and go.