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A CurtainUp Review
In Real Life

By Brad Bradley

Charlayne Woodard, A self-described "natural born storyteller from a family of story tellers," begins her latest self-written solo show, In Real Life, by joyfully pantomiming a session playing her beloved violin, and easily and immediately wins over her audience with expansive energy and a beaming yet reflective smile. The trademark ample grin barely begins to indicate contradictions between her soulful exuberance and her insistence at deeply digging into her heart. Woodard is so acutely aware of both her strengths and weaknesses that her recollection of a grandmother's saying about God protecting fools seems at once to be both a "right on" and an obvious remark.

This theatrical memoir begins a quarter century ago when, almost fresh from drama school, Charlayne arrived to join her tall white boyfriend (now husband) Harris at a Manhattan address. While nominally on the elegant Upper East Side, their apartment was in reality a cramped and run-down miniature flat with the bathtub obnoxiously poised in the kitchen under the spice rack. Their notable step up was to a far more ample dwelling across town on West End Avenue which came to be known as "the jungle" for Woodard's lush plants by the windows. Still "a drama student" to the core, she found that, unfortunately, her always ready five dramatic audition pieces including Shakespeare, Chekhov and the then current For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough got her nowhere. While auditioning for replacements for the latter, she was promptly tossed on the grounds that she lacked "life experience."

Such ignominy may have hurt our heroine at the time, but no battle damage is in evidence. Her resilience was buoyed by the close support of the constant Harris and other friends. Most prominent and captivating in the narrative are Winston, a Rastafarian devotee from Jamaica whose early pure life is as invigorating as his later decadent phase is alarming, and Alaina, a relatively established cabaret singer who remarkably drives Charlayne to success even while rivaling her for a key role. In fact, Alaina's elaborate supportive efforts to visit early previews of Charlayne's then uncertain work in the about-to-be-smash-hit Ain't Misbehavin' while disguised "incog-negro," must be counted among this program's more memorable forays into hilarity.

Ain't Misbehavin' truly is the dramatic centerpiece of Woodard's most engaging theatrical monologue, from her bizarre audition choice of "Auld Lang Syne" for both ballad and up-tempo samples to her unexpected winning of the part and through the exhilarating and draining long run which at times seemed to her like a prison sentence. While of course Ain't was a rapturous musical experience for audiences, Woodard's relating of the behind- the-scenes posturing and positioning among company members by itself is an indelible vignette of the struggles involved in polishing and maintaining a hit show. She finds charm in everyone, including the indulgent preening of one famously unforgettable co-star named Nell [Carter] who, upon realizing that Charlayne was among her co-nominees for a Tony Award, chirped offstage "Battle stations, Miss Thing!" Carter's bon mots apparently took a less directly competitive tone later in the run when she frequently could be heard from backstage during self-awarded snack breaks calling out during Woodard's solo, "Anybody want a chicken wing"?"

Director Daniel Sullivan of course has less to worry about with In Real Life than when the stage population is larger, but importantly maintains the pace and energy of the solo play, and has encouraged the perfect support from his entire design team to convey a variety of places and moods. His approach is both minimalist and high-tech, with Ms. Perkins' lighting shrewdly and vividly employed to convey environments as varied as the claustrophobic railroad flat to a glittering Broadway opening night.

This Charlayne not only knows the ropes, but also has fun when she falls. Certainly she gives the audience plenty to enjoy, for her autobiographical stance manages to at once be a gritty melodrama and a joyride through her professional arrival to the rank of theater notables. Move over Whoopi, Leguizamo, and Bogosian; step aside Spalding Gray, Anna Deveare Smith et al and make room for Charlayne! A totally mesmerizing mistress of the monologue, she has found an unexpected niche and is most definitely here to stay.

Editor's Note: Our Los Angeles critic also liked Charlayne, as evident from her review.

Written and Performed by Charlayne Woodard
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Set Design by John Lee Beatty
Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins
Costume Design: James Berton Harris
Lighting Design: Kathy A. Perkins
Sound Design: Chris Walker
Original music: Daryl Waters
Running Time: Two hours, ten minutes, including intermission
Manhattan Theatre 3 Club at at Stage II at City Center, 131 West 55th Street (6th/7th Aves) 212/ 581-1212. MTC website.
Plays Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30; Saturday & Sunday at 3 -- $45
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on October 6, matinee performance
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