Friday, June 18, 2010

Lady with All the Answers doesn't really offer any

Stephanie Clayman as Ann Landers. Photo by Elizabeth Stewart.

The Nora Theatre Co.'s The Lady with All the Answers, at the Central Square Theater through June 26, purports to be a biography of "Ann Landers," the pseudonym for Esther Pauline ("Eppie") Lederer, the Chicago sage who via her ubiquitous advice column led an ongoing national salon in the pages of the press for 47 years.

Lederer's long success in the role of "Ann" (she was so popular that identical-twin-sister "Popo" soon carved out a competing chunk of turf as "Dear Abby") wasn't much of a mystery. She may have been no student of the human soul, but Eppie had a keen eye for the emotional (and moral) bottom line - you couldn't pull one over on her; and of course she had an army of experts on call who could advise on the technicalities of virtually any topic. She also had a style - a punchy, wiseacre chirp with an ethnic lilt that had somehow been drained of all ethnicity, and was spiced instead with her own brand of 40's slang: "Bub, you've got a geranium in your cranium!" was a typical line.

Did anyone ever actually talk like that? I mean besides "Ann"? Well, apparently Eppie did; or so playwright Rambo would have us believe. He doesn't really try to crack the veneer of Lederer's linguistic vim and vigor, but does a pretty good job of capturing its cadence, and making it sound roughly like conversation. Although in The Lady with All the Answers, Eppie's the only one talking; the play's conceit is that she's holding court in her plush Chicago apartment (perfectly rendered in Louis Quinze and Chagalls by designer Brynna Bloomfield) as if it were a talk show set, chatting across the fourth wall to the audience about this or that famous letter or opinion. But at the same time, she's trying to crank out her most famous (and most personal) column - the one that announced her divorce from Budget Rent-a-Car bigwig Jules Lederer, her husband of 36 years. Yes, public face and private heartbreak. Sexual betrayal - and how to hang the toilet paper! This double device is unwieldy at times - intermission arrives because Eppie declares she needs a bubble bath - but to be honest, it does kind of capture the column's funny yin-yang tension between tragedy and trivia.

But the playwright treads so lightly in Eppie's private life that we actually learn none of her secrets. The script's raison d'ĂȘtre would seem to be to get behind that famous column - but Rambo steadfastly refuses to do so. We learn hubby Jules was having an affair "with a woman younger than his daughter" (that daughter would be Margo Howard, who kept the advice dynasty going with "Dear Prudence"), which meant the marriage was over. But we do wonder why, exactly - Eppie was constantly advising other couples to go through counseling, patch things up for the sake of the children, try to learn to trust each other again and see the marriage through. So why couldn't she take her own advice?

Likewise her famous (and utterly understandable) feud with "Dear Abby" is acknowledged, but given the comic brush-off (after a reported five-year silence, the two did reconcile, below). We do learn a few things about Eppie that hint at a powerful, and possibly mercurial, personality - such as the fact that she dropped a standing fiancé to marry the handsome Jules (whom she met while shopping for her wedding veil!). Perhaps Eppie was more demanding and pampered (all those bubble baths!) than she, or Rambo - or perhaps Margo Howard, whose protective presence seems to hover over the play - lets on.

"Eppie" and "Popo" - a.k.a. "Ann Landers" and "Dear Abby."

On the plus side, we also get a sense of Lederer's considerable political energy (she was a liberal Democratic operative, and her connections to many of her experts came from her friendship with Hubert Humphrey), which you'd think could open up for us a whole new perspective on "Ann Landers." After all, Eppie was hardly politically mainstream; she was progressive, and Jewish, and pretty much a proto-feminist, all while insisting she was a "square" with a WASP name out of Leave it to Beaver. Playwright Rambo doesn't really limn these contradictions, but does perhaps his best work while detailing Lederer's frustrating campaign against the Vietnam war. Her change of heart over, and eventual championing of, gay and lesbian issues is likewise quite touching. Eppie was certainly on the right side of most of our political struggles, even if her commercial connections and general social M.O. left many progressives and feminists sneering.

Some of the edge of this material is lost, however, in the smooth bubble bath of nostalgia at the Central Square Theater, where Daniel Gidron has directed the play as a light crowdpleaser - which is probably precisely how it was intended. And it is entertaining - and even moving in its more-political segments. I just think it could have been a little bit more. As Eppie, actress Stephanie Clayman is certainly likeable and full of pep - she earns the right to wear that famous perm. And she nails a Midwest accent so eccentric something tells me it's drawn from recordings of Lederer herself. But Clayman doesn't really push the envelope when it comes to the deeper feelings that must have tugged at Eppie while writing that fateful column; she pauses and sighs a lot, it's true, but once the column's done, and read aloud to daughter Margo, Clayman hardly seems emotionally exhausted; instead, she actually lets out a great big yawn. Oh, well, so much for Jules, off to bed!! This probably squares with the expectations of the audience - which really wants just one more Ann Landers column, rather than an investigation of the whole phenomenon. But anyone who thinks The Lady with All the Answers has answered any of the open questions about Eppie Lederer has a geranium in his - or her - cranium.