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THEATER REVIEW Born Ready
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-04-05

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Playwright: Stacie Barra. At: Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St. Tickets: $25; TheFactoryTheater.com . Runs through: April 29

All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are as celebrated for their manneristic melodrama as for their iconic status in the annals of Hollywood cinema. Factory Theater playwright Stacie Barra's wry parody of the two seminal films reaches beyond simple ridicule, however, instead reflecting a genre not only enjoyable in its own right, but departing from traditional ageist bias to grant the final victory to the proven survivor.

Our protagonist is Marion Kroft, a showbiz veteran through and through, having launched her career as a child actor, and later, as the smartcracking female partner in cabaret comedy. ( Think Sid Caeser and Imogene Coca. ) Our story begins circa 1955, Marion's name recognition and vaudeville experience having successfully adapted to the new small-screen medium of network television, where she now hosts her own variety show. One day, a dancer in the chorus catches her attention—the young country-bred Harriet Houlihan, whose ingratiating overtures soon garner her the mentorship of the show's headliner. As the women's friendship grows, their marketability becomes increasingly dependent on the professional "chemistry" engendered thereby. When the studio bosses propose a plan to put them in competition with one another, each must decide how far she will do to guard her own career.

This kind of emotionally intense material is not easy to play, the slightest misstep risking the narrative's plunge into Charles Busch-style camp—fun, but hardly original. Under Wm. Bullion's direction, though, the characters retain their dignity, never tipping the wink to sportive playgoers prepared to guffaw at the slightest invitation. This doesn't mean that Barra's text is devoid of humor, chiefly arising from the on-air advertisements touting now-unpopular tobacco, pharmaceutical and household products ( along with an anachronistic pitch for a feminine hygiene device unmentionable on real-life television until 1972 ), nor does it shrink from depictions of outrageous behavior drawing audience disapproval inspired, not by alleged gender-linked duplicity, but by the flagrant sexism exhibited by the industry's uniformly white, old and male executives.

Jon Steinhagen's songs, Andria Emerick Brown's dances and Kate Setzer Kamphausen's quasi-Dior gowns re-create period ambience with museum accuracy, as do the onscreen acting styles of Eleanor Katz and Clara Byczkowski in the roles of the doomed heroines. Even if Mad Men-era estrogen and intrigue are not your cup of colortinis, you can always enjoy Factory's nostalgic portrayal of video entertainment's early years.


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