Thursday, May 5, 2011

the lady with all the answers

Here's my latest review for the Denver Post on "The Lady With All the Answers," playing at the Arvada Center.

Alex Ryer as Ann Landers. Via the Denver Post.

I suffered doubts because I wasn't sure if I was being too harsh simply because it isn't really a show for me. The show is set in 1975 and she gives lots of advice to lovelorn married people of that era, going back as far as her beginning as a columnist in 1955. The concerns of aging suburbanites in fading marriages are not exactly my wheelhouse.

But as I reflected on it, I think I'm right in that there just isn't a lot of substance to the play, certainly not a lot of dramatic tension. Even for older folks who are more in tune with the Ann Landers oeuvre, with her whole midwestern, matronly vibe, it had to feel somehow unsatisfying to walk out of there after nearly two hours consisting of small tidbits of emotion, slathered over with huge dollops of filler.

At any rate. Here's the piece in full or go here if you'd prefer to leave a nasty comment on the Post site. :) And if you read this, thanks to whoever followed up the original commenter on my 'Howl' piece with a comment for that angry gentleman. :D


Writers have long been fascinated with writing stories about the writer’s life.

For some reason.

Knowing writers, it’s likely that the day a hominid first put a piece of charcoal to the wall of his cave and scratched out the very first rudimentary letters, he was jotting down ideas for a screenplay about his quirky experiences as a writer.

Of course, if one assumes a writer is actually performing the activity by which he has named himself with any kind of regularity, that life might not be terribly dramatic.

Enter “The Lady With All the Answers,” a play about Eppie Lederer, better known as advice columnist Ann Landers. Performed at the Arvada Center by Alex Ryer with a Midwestern, homey charm, Landers welcomes us into her apartment on a night in 1975 as she is attempting to write the most difficult column of her life--perhaps not the most potentially action-packed scenario around which to build a play.

But the column promises to be a doozy: in it she must announce to her readers that, after two decades of advising married couples to stick it out no matter what, her own divorce from her husband of 36 years is imminent.

As a writer, naturally the first thing she does is procrastinate, nibbling chocolates, taking informal surveys of the audience, playing records, and sharing some of her favorite letters as she prepares them for an upcoming book.

Unsurprisingly, it is these letters that make up the bulk of the show, as they are the entire reason for us--or her, for that matter--to be here at all. A few of the other activities and asides in which she indulges seem a little forced, a little too obviously filler to stretch this thing out to a full-length play instead of the one-act to which it could easily have been condensed.

Regardless, this Ann Landers does indeed have all the answers. Given all her perfectly-crafted responses to letter-writers as well as the bon mots she tells us she delivered in person to the famous and powerful people she knew, one wonders if writing this particular column might have been the first time this woman ever encountered self-doubt.

But there is no denying Lederer had verve, as well as a cheerful strain of chutzpah. According to David Rambo’s script, when it came to dealing with those who stood in her way, she wouldn’t so much stare them down as she would wear them down with her relentless ebullience.

For instance, as far back as 1967 she cajoled President Johnson into allowing her to visit the troops in Vietnam, and went on to personally place 2,500 phone calls to relatives and loved ones on behalf of soldiers laid up in the hospital. She championed the rights of homosexuals long before it was remotely popular to do so, and she spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to get the National Cancer Act passed.

Of course Landers’ heyday was a time when people did things like read newspapers and even write letters on actual paper, so there is a demographic toward which the show is undoubtedly aimed. But regardless of one’s age, the stories are often genuinely moving--not only the ones about her troubled letter-writers but also her personal stories.

Nonetheless, as sweet as some of the anecdotes are, and as charmingly as Ryer wears Landers’ bouffant and pantsuits, there just isn’t much there there. The play isn’t so much a play as it is an excuse to string together some of Landers’ best letters and her pithy responses to them.

And while Ryer does a fine job of spraying the audience with the firehose of Landers’ inexorable enthusiasm as well as sharing her more heartfelt moments, Rambo’s script gives her very little to work with.

Perhaps, like people who find that life changes based on glib advice from a stranger often don’t last, audiences may ultimately find that the show rings a bit hollow.

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