10/19/2014 10:00 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2014

First Nighter: Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker Trod Local Boards

The Belle of Amherst--in which Emily Dickinson chats volubly and possibly in contrast to the common perception of her--was written by William Luce for Julie Harris and was presented under Charles Nelson Reilly's shrewdly creative direction. As a result of Harris' 1976 appearance in it on Broadway, she won the last of her five Tonys.

Now Don Gregory, who produced the Harris production with Mike Merrick, is reviving it at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs with Joely Richardson as the reclusive poet addressing audience members as if they'd dropped in for a chat.

Arriving with a black cake she's just made as the family baker--the recipe runs to two pounds of flour, two pounds of butter, two pounds of sugar and much more--Emily discusses myriad aspects of her life and the lives of her father, mother, sister Lavinia and brother Austin.

Inserting only some of the 1800 thousands poems she wrote while almost never leaving her home, this Emily refers to the one man whom she loved from afar (Charles Wadsworth, a Philadelphia minister she first encountered on a rare family trip) and goes on about Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the "preceptor" who eventually published some of her works but was often quite forthcoming In his criticism of her unexpected meter and off-rhymes.

Dressed in white as she says she always does (though the in most famous photograph of her she wears black), Emily spends two acts at small household duties while discoursing on matters as small as the family cats and as large as the universe, as she sees her place in it. Dickinson fans will recognize poems that begin, for two examples, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" and "Because I could not stop for death."

As Emily in white (William Ivey Long, the designer) ceaselessly moves two and fro on Antje Ellermann's notion of a middle-class Amherst domicile, Richardson gives an amiable performance. It must be said, however, that under Steve Cosson's direction, she might have drawn on a much wider range of physical activity and emotions than she does. There's much more to mine here than has been so far.

Nonetheless, Richardson gives the impression that the elusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) would have made a likable companion, whether or not that was the case as she got older. Towards the monologue's beginning, Emily admits she's "cracked," but she goes on to explain that eccentricity is a pose she's developed. We'll never know for sure, but Luce's take is welcome as the way poetry lovers might enjoy remembering her.


Dorothy Parker, on the other hand, left home all the time, often to decorate the Round Table at the Algonquin with her wit.

If you take Excuse my Dust A Dorothy Parker Portfolio as a guide, however, it quickly becomes plain that Parker's famous and fabulous wit was no more nor less than a smokescreen blown into the Manhattan atmosphere to mask the New York City native's profound depression.

"Excuse My Dust," many might recognize as the epitaph Parker once (or several more times) said she'd like carved on her gravestone, and now it also serves as the title of a 60-minute mini-retrospective Chicago actress Jennifer Engstrom is offering at the Soho Playhouse.

Engstrom, a handsome woman whom Parker might have thought far too good-looking to impersonate her, acts several of the wisecracking New Yorker's short stories. They're some of the ones in which various in-extremis woman (all obviously versions of Parker's worst fears of herself) howl at the world. Among them are "A Telephone Call," "A Waltz" and "Just a Little One."

Sometimes sitting on a celadon divan at one end of the Soho Playhouse's downstairs room where a coatrack holds prop clothes, Engstrom--directed with intense panache by Darren Lee Cole--sometimes strolls, sometimes even waltzes the length of the space. She does so in service to Parker's desperate ladies unburdening themselves of never-ending problems, many of the troubles of their own making.

As Engstrom goes about her stage business, she makes something terribly concrete of Parker's embedded despair.

Only occasionally does Engstrom include one of Parker's economic poems. She leaves out the one about men not making passes at girls who wear glasses and the suicidal one with the conclusion that you might as well live. But intoned is "Unfortunate Coincidence," "By the time you swear you're his, shivering and sighing/And he vows his passion is infinite, undying/Lady, make a note of this: One of you is lying."