Review: ‘Gorgeous Hussy: an interview with Joan Crawford’ at The Exit

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(Wily West’s production of  “Gorgeous Hussy” plays at The Exit Theatre on July 26 and August 1, 3, 9, 15 and 16, 2013.)  

Fans of Joan Crawford will find delight with Morgan Ludlow’s new two-hander. As the elderly movie star, Susan Jackson gives a fine impersonation, convincing us that we are in the presence of cinematic royalty. As her interviewer, Ryan Hayes gives a performance that is full of unexpected twists and surprises.

Quinn Whitaker’s set of a luxury hotel room helps to create the illusion of reality. As details of Ms. Crawford’s storied career unfold in the interview, a slide show of movie stills projected against a cyclorama is a delight for film nostalgia buffs. But Ludlow’s script does not stop with the details of Ms. Crawford’s career. In a clever twist, he has the movie star turn the interview upside down.

Frustrated with her failure to fully communicate with her interviewer, and tired of being manipulated, Ludlow’s Crawford presents the naive journalist with an interesting proposition: she will turn him intoJoan Crawford with the magic of costume and makeup. After all, she insists, “Joan Crawford” is a creation of artifice, not a real person at all, and she can prove it.

Caricature of Joan Crawford by Charles Kruger.
Caricature of Joan Crawford by Charles Kruger.

This exploration of artifice and self creation, the roots of identity public and private, is the real theme of the play, rather than the film history which is so carefully exploited.

For the second act, Mr. Hayes performs in drag as Joan Crawford, while the character of Joan, now looking completely different sans makeup and wig, plays the role of interviewer. Who’s the star now? Who is Joan, really? A character who can be played by anybody, or a real person? A sympathetic friend or some sort of evil witch? As these questions are explored, the play holds our interest and stimulates our imaginations.

Jackson’s impersonation of the movie star and Hayes’s drag turn are very amusing, as is the informative material on Crawford’s career. But, alas, I left the theater with the feeling that an opportunity had been missed.

Susan Jackson and Ryan Hayes in "Gorgeous Hussy". Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.
Susan Jackson and Ryan Hayes in “Gorgeous Hussy”. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

By focussing so much on the factual details of a real career, the deeper themes opened up by the situation are left relatively unexplored. The mechanics of the slide show, and the constant return to lengthy exposition on the real history of Hollywood and details of studio life repeatedly move the script away from the real drama about fact and fiction, true identity and mask, history and imagined recreation. I rather wish that playwright Ludlow had left Joan Crawford behind and instead created an imaginary movie star so that his play would not be burdened by all that “true” information he apparently feels compelled to work in. It anchors this ship too heavily; it never sets sail onto the high seas.

As it stands, though, it definitely entertains and is worth seeing.

For further information, click here.

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“Gorgeous Hussy: An Interview with Joan Crawford” by Morgan Ludlow, produced by Wily West Productions. Director: Brady Brophy-Hilton. Lead Design: Quinn Whitaker. Technical Direction: Wes Cayabyab.

Susan Jackson: Joan. Ryan Hayes: Roy.

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