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A CurtainUp Review
Hollywood Arms
Why do you piss on everybody's dreams?
---Jody, to the chronically negative Nanny in a rare burst of spunkiness as defender of his ex-wife's and daughter's dreams of not being ordinary.
Michelle Pawk, Sara Niemietz, Linda Lavin (Photo: Joan Marcus )
When Linda Lavin and Michelle Pawk, the fictionalized counterparts of Carol Burnett's Nanny (grandmother) and mother, harmonize on a riff from "You'll Never Know Just How Much I Love You" the warmth underlying their difficult yet tight familial bond is touchingly evoked and we have a glimpse of the sad-funny stage memoir Hollywood Arms might have been.
 Donna Lynne Champlin
Donna Lynne Champlin
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
In another family gathering with music, Donna Lynne Champlin, Burnett's stage alter-ego, Helen, re-enacts a life-changing event in her "career" as a movie usherette. Seems a projection room glitch propelled Helen to the stage to keep the restless audience entertained, which she does by acting out the movie they came to see and capping off her spiel with "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." That scene is a deserved show stopper, and a triumph for the actress projecting the persona without looking the least bit like her.

There's another bit of Lavin-Pawk harmonizing but as with "You'll Never Know", it's allowed to fade away too quickly and awkwardly. Awkwardness is common in too many other scene to scene transitions. The dirth of episodes to capture that touch of family connection in the face of frustration, poverty and psychic weaknesses (think Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs ) applies overall, so that much of the almost two and a half hours plays like an old B-movie that the projectionist (in this case director Hal Prince) has slowed down to an at times snail-like pace.

Even the outstanding cast, and the better than outstanding performances of Lavin and Pawk, can't rescue Hollywood Arms from its weakly constructed script. The play is faithful enough to Burnett's recollections of growing up desperately poor with people who were dysfunctional long before there was a catchall adjective for their assorted eccentricities and weaknesses. At first glance everything seems in place for a successful transfer from page to stage.

To enliven the evening there's an almost too large cast that includes: Louise's alcoholic and tubercular ex-husband Jody (Frank Wood, an always expert portrayer of distant but likeable men); Bill, the husband her mother pushes her into marrying (Patrick Clear); Dixie, the hotel apartment's landlady (Leslie Hendrix) and three children (Nicolas King as Dixie's smart alecky young son; Sara Niemietz in an auspicious debut as young Helen; Emily Graham-Handley as Alice, the child of Louise's affair with a married man).

The production also offers flawless 1941-51 period details. Walt Spangler's authentically furnished low-rent apartment is overhung by the beckoning dreamscape of Hollywood Hills which in the prologue is seen through a scrim that, thanks to Howell Binkley's lighting, creates the effect of a sepia photograph. Judith Dolan's costumes are a fashion show of pink chenille robes, Hoover aprons and print dresses.

The problem is that none of the above adds up to a really cohesive and emotionally satisfying dramatic whole, with many stretches of monotony. Part of this is due to the equal weight given to funny business that defines the characters and conflicts and the more sitcom-y humor -- to illustrate the former we have the arrival of Nanny and young Helen In Hollywood where the closest Louise (Pawk) has come to establishing herself as a writer has been an interview with Cesar Romero (just one in the name dropping parade of circa 1941 screen stars); as an example of the latter there's a rather frantic skit about a home-based gambling business.

Carol Burnett's many fans will be familiar with much of what they see on stage from her autobiographically inspired early TV sketches. Except for the already mentioned "Over The Rainbow" scene, however, don't expect any insights into how she evolved as a comedienne.

With the high cost of Broadway tickets, it's hard to predict whether word of mouth about the assets of Hollywood Arms will outweigh its liiabilities and prevent its following in the footsteps of the season's first highly anticipated, quick closing shows, Amour . That's why, anyone who appreciates topnotch acting, should go sooner rather than later to enjoy the quirks and quips of Linda Lavin's six-times-married, hypochondriac Nanny and to watch the beautiful Michelle Pawk change from a confident dreamer, and sexually vibrant young woman to a self-destructive, alcoholic who in a touching final act of love lets Helen take her younger sister to New York and away from the increasingly depressing California household.

I hope somebody out there is writing a terrific play or musical in which Lavin and Pawk can be reunited. And while they're at it, they should write in a part for Donna Lynne Champlin.

Hollywood Arms
Written by Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett, based on Burnett's memoir
Directed by Harold Prince
Cast (alphabetical order): Steve Bakunas (cop 2), Donna Lynne Champlin (Older Helen), Patrick Clear (Bill) Emily Graham-Handley (Alice), Leslie Hendrix (Dixie), Nicholas King (Malcolm), Christian Kohn (Cop 1), Linda Lavin (Nanny), Sara Niemietz (Young Helen), Michele Pawk (Louise), Frank Wood (Jody)
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Judith Dolan
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Original Music: Robert Lindsey Nassif
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes including 1-15 minute intermission.
Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. (Broadway & 6th Ave) 212/239-6200
8/04/02-1/26/03; opening 10/07/02.
Tue-Sat @8PM, Wed & Sat @2PM, Sun @3PM--$15-$75
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 6th performance.

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