A brusque, brazen woman quickly crosses a tiny room to answer the persistent ringing of her telephone. She has her own, unique charm – a boisterous spunk evocative of the golden days of Katharine Hepburn and Bette Midler. “Helen,” her honeyed contralto, booming with concern, answers in frantic disarray, followed by words that would cement the inherent tone of the play – at once humorous and heartbreaking. “Are you all right?”
A tempered beat.
“Then, why on God’s green Earth are you calling collect?”
The Heights Players, a community theatre troupe in Brooklyn opened their fifty-fourth season this weekend with “Hollywood Arms,” a play based on legendary actress and comedienne Carol Burnett’s memoir, “One More Time.” Adapted by Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, it depicts the star’s impoverished upbringing in Depression-ridden Hollywood, where she initially shared a dilapidated studio with her grandmother, whom she affectionately calls “Nanny,” (Susan Faye Groberg) and eventually her younger half-sister, Alice (Anna Furmanskaya). Her divorcee mother, Louise (Deborah Pautler), meanwhile lives in another apartment while chasing the futile dream of becoming a magazine writer.
A 12-scene first act takes place in 1941, with a considerably shorter second act following a decade later.
Proud and poverty-stricken, the family tries to survive and keep their dreams alive as Burnett traces her life from adolescence to adulthood, though the eyes of Helen, the play’s driven, devoted and ultimately idealistic protagonist.
Played in the first act by the infectiously adorable Linda Zvereva, Helen struggles to maintain peace within her feuding family – between her hilariously hypochondriac grandmother, her negligently ambitious mother and her infrequent, alcoholic father, Jody (Steve Platt).
At the center of it all, young Helen longs to entertain. On the rooftop of their humble building, she hosts an imaginary radio show, reveling in her neighbors’ raucous complaints to turn that racket down. After all, if they believe it’s real.
She must be getting good.
In a twisted proportion, as the child’s talents blossom, her mother, blind to all but her own woes, meets with continued rejection in her literary pursuit. On the financial front, her married suitor leaves her with the gift of conceived life and Bill (Bill Barry), that ever-persistent gentleman caller, is not getting any more interesting.
Finally, in a drunken frenzy, she agrees to marry him and Nanny, on her knees, praying to the Lord of Christian Science, believes that with this addition of a “meal-ticket,” the family is saved.
Jump ahead 10 years and Helen – now played marvelously by Julia Morrissey, an ambitious, no-nonsense older sister to Alice – is diligently earning money at a local movie theater to fund her UCLA tuition.
Her mother, however, has turned to the bottle.
This is where Pautler truly shines. Although visibly older than the suggested age for Louise, her realistic portrayal of the haunted alcoholic is so gripping that the time-honored cliché springs to life and age truly becomes “just a number.”
Slow, deliberate movements across the shoddy stage paint an eerie semblance of a desperate woman with a broken dream – unwilling to face any reality where she may be, in fact, ordinary.
Her moving performance comes to a head when the disenchanted mother begins to deal with the foreshadowed death of her ex-husband and Helen’s father. Clad in her luminescent white robe, hair in a mess of greasy tendrils, she is a fallen angel – exhausted from life, her glassy eyes adrift in the looming sky.
And yet, while tragedy is its soul, the heart of Burnett’s play is its generous comedy. The bulk of the humor comes from Nanny and Groberg seems to have lived, breathed and wailed in preparation for the role, employing excellent instincts in her portrayal of the well-meaning force of nature.
The glue that held the poignant production together lies in its thoroughly practiced professionalism. Under the meticulous eye of director Susan Montez and her stage crew, each cue is sharply matched – from the flawlessly executed lighting of “Hollywoodland” at the top of the play to the collaborative urgency during frantic dress changes.
In the three-quarter round thrust theater, the respective cast members live the moment. With the exception of a few throwaway, quickly-delivered lines, all characters are at once engaged in a shared life marked by intermingled moments of sorrow and joy.
The glitz and glamour of old Hollywood may not extend to the poor in Burnett’s tale of chased dreams, but in their staunch realism, the Heights Players revive some of that old magic.
Photo by Jan VanderPutten