I'm in love with Annette Bening. Yes, I know that she's married to the most famous lothario in the Western World. But a guy can dream, can't he? Ever since I saw her years ago in a film called "The Grifters," I've been enamored of this woman... her keen wit, sharp intelligence, stunning beauty, joie de vivre, the whole package comes together in a spectacular fashion. Which will explain why I was at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood -310-208-5454) this week for the world premiere of Annette Bening's one-woman show inspired by Ruth Draper's monologues. Ruth who? I'll get to that in a moment. After the 90-minute no-intermission performance, Annette came over to the Napa Valley Grill with her daughter for the post-premiere party and I had a chance to talk briefly with her about the play. (Warren Beatty was off shooting his Howard Hughes movie, which is why he wasn't there.) Here is an astonishing coincidence, which I didn't have a chance to tell her until now. I was living in Manhattan in 1956 at a theatrical hotel called The Whitby on West 45th street off 8th Avenue, across the street from the Playhouse Theatre. (Side note: My neighbor on one side was Oscar Lerman, who went on to become a nightclub mogul with Tramps in London and marriage to the beautiful Jackie Collins; on the other side was Willie Gilbert, who wrote Howdy Doody and then How to Succeed in Business Without Trying, while five attractive Copacabana dancers lived in the penthouse. Don't ask.) I was writing a syndicated gossip column called "Sidetalks of New York," where I reviewed new plays, music and restaurants. A few days after Christmas that year I walked across the street to see the famed monologist Ruth Draper, then in her seventies, do her vaunted one-woman show. I honestly don't remember much about it... or which sketches she did, but I do know that the legendary woman died three days thereafter. Ruth Draper had been born in 1884 into a wealthy patrician Park Avenue family, and when she began acting as a teenager it was considered sacrilegious for a woman of her class to do so, She became the most famous American actress of the '20s and '30s with her one-woman shows, playing before worldwide audiences and royalty. She was once described as "the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us."
Annette at the party. Photo by Jay Weston
Annette told the L.A. Times that she has always had a weird fascination for this chameleon of a woman, who created a symphony of idiosyncratic characters, each summoned up by sly shifts in voice, inflection, and language. "She had an ability to listen and re-create accent, cadences, different ages of people," she said. Draper's famous monologues were recorded and have influenced such diverse talents as Lily Tomlin, Mike Nichols, Whoopi, John Lithgow, Simon Callow and others. Annette has memorized most of them over the years and has worked to bring her own twist to the vignettes. She told me that once she had memorized the dialogues, she stopped listening to Ruth's recordings so she could bring her own interpretations to the monologues. The show opens with Annette in a Roman toga guiding an exercise-poise class of affluent overweight women in a dance routine. An amusing lightweight sketch, but things get more interesting with the second, a ditsy debutant at the ball. But the third sketch is really wonderful, 'Doctors and Diets,' a luncheon of four wealthy women -- all on weird diets -- at the finest restaurant in New York. Hilarious. And then comes the clincher, the final sketch, a famous one, The Italian Lesson. A wealthy woman sitting on her chaise lounge having an Italian lesson -- translating Dante's Inferno -- while myriad interruptions demonstrate a complex, lonely woman amidst her children, employees, her dog, phone calls, a missing husband and secret lover. It's poignant, funny, heartbreaking and ever-so interesting. The local paper described Bening's voice as "being rich and expansive, intimate, husky,sexy, searching... cunning and kindness hide there, its pitch can whirl and change in an instant." Yes, so true.
Annette is always described as a four-time Oscar nominee, and I personally rallied for her to win it for her recent performance in The Kids Are Alright. I saw her twice before at the Geffen in Female of the Species and Hedda Gabler. This show will run through May 18th, so if you have any interest in seeing a fascinating portrait from a brilliant actress at the height of her powers, call now for tickets. (Box office is 310-208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. There are no performances on Mondays, and she does matinees on Saturday and Sunday.)