The Property Known As Garland by Billy Van Zandt. Directed by Jonathan Slocum.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Matt Passetto and Wanda Libardi; photo: Robert Dumais
Wanda Libardi as Judy Garland; photo: Robert Dumais
"Living legend my Goddamn $600 ass!"
In the two character one-woman show, The Property Known As Garland, Judy Garland struggles with her inner demons while outside the door singer Johnny Raye is warming up an expectant audience at the Falconre Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark. Though no one is aware of it, Garland is only months away from dying. Backstage at this final concert of her European tour in March, 1969 she prepares herself, the only way she knows how, to embrace the audience she needs to love her. Married, with three successful young adult children, she is living the lie she has been brought up to live. Sadly, everyone she ever knew is now a helpless drunk, an addict to some substance or other and only she can exist in a drug free, alcohol free, sex free, fear free environment. That is her take on life, her joke at her own expense. She is everything she hates about the world around her.
This is a comedy. It is a sometimes brilliant comedy, sometimes a starkly bitter one. On stage at K-111 in the Koussevitsky Center at Berkshire Community College, it is a highly entertaining piece with genuine laughter, some highs and some lows but not the peaks and valleys that could be attained. Billy Van Zandtís script provides those extremes but it takes two truly fearless theatrical professionals to get to them. Without that exhausting stretch we are left with an acceptable comedy and that is what we have at this point. Stretching to the breaking point is not easy; it is perilous and the Town Players production does well by the script and characters but never reaches the breaking point.
Wanda Libardi takes on Judy Garland and comes away with a victory. Her interpretation of the dynamo that was Garland is nice, and funny, and touching. What she never is, however, is frightening. When Garland speaks of suicide attempts we should feel her deep need for self-destruction and its source, that need to protect the best of herself from the worst of herself. Libardi brings us the sadness and the pity of Garlandís motivations but never attacks the harder parts.
In the role of Ed, the stage manager who is sent on a journey to find mashed potatoes at 9:30 in the evening, Matt Passetto takes his musical comedy background to heart and performs the characterization of this character as well as anyone could. We know he is a fan of the movie star from Hollywood. We understand his desire to keep her happy and ready to perform. He never gets the joke that is being played on him and that makes the joke all the better. Passetto makes an excellent foil.
But Libardi has such strength in the moments when Garlandís mind relives the low moments in her life that even the comedy becomes tragedy for instants here and there. These are moments the character lives outside herself, only in her mind. They have no relevance to the play and the moments as they fly by in her dressing room. They are the way-stations here, the pull-backs that give the Garland character a breath away from the instant tensions. Libardi does so much within them that she loses the reality of the moments that surround them.
Director Jonathan Slocum takes the journey with his actress through the characterís mind and mind set. As she saunters, swaggers, careens through her memories and her preparation for performance his hand is on her hips turning her, adjusting her, moving her into and out of center stage deftly. He has done a fine job with that part of the job. It is those extremes, though, that both of them have resisted. Slocum hasnít pushed Libardi into the monster that was Garland. He hasnít taken her to the coquette either. We are left with a funny, if miserable, middle-aged woman who is fascinating but not what we expect.
Libardi is also a wonderful singer but in this show she doesnít get an opportunity to sing which is a pity. Written for Van Zandtís wife, Adrienne Barbeau, who was initially a musical comedy girl in such Broadway shows as Fiddler on the Roof and Grease, she was always a better dancer than singer. It was a smart move on the authorís part to not allow his star to sing - it would have shattered the Garland image that she created in the play three years ago. Libardi is a better vocalist than dancer and her rendition of a Garland tune might have given her an emotional thrust that is just missed in this play.
This is a short run, sadly. With more time on stage, with more audiences responding, Libardi might have been able to take that next leap into the desperation of the tortured soul that was Garland.
In the play she refers to singing in a Lesbian bar in the Village and sleeping on the couch of a fan. In reality she sang at a Lesbian bar owned by her friend Mary McCarty - a one-time Broadway star - on the upper east side of Manhattan and slept in the bed of a fan, Johnny Meyer, a songwriter who accompanied her on this tour and who wrote her last song, literally based on this time in her life which he lived with her, "Iíd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning." I knew her then, knew Johnny, knew the crowd around her. Libardi could have captured all of what I recall and might yet. If only Town Players could give her the time.
The Property Known As Garland only plays through Sunday, October 18. For tickets and information call 413-443-9279.