We like to think the iconic folks are still with us, and sometimes it is only after they have passed on that we can get within a hair’s breadth of them. And even when our heads tell us this is an illusion of the ultimate sort; our hearts carry on and allow us to play full-out in the playground of fantasy. So it is that the audience at Me And Jezebel welcomes Bette Davis (Mr. Kelly Moore) into the home of author and real-life storyteller Elizabeth Fuller. Davis enters, slightly the worse for wear, taking a sabbatical from life but not in any way retreating. And as she enters we slip into the fantasy for which we have come. Bette Davis is alive.
It is 1985, and there is no room at the inn in New York. There is a hotel strike, which means the normal staff at the New York hotels will be sub-par. As well, Davis is reeling from the recent publication of My Mother’s Keeper by Davis’s daughter B.D.Hyman. She seeks and finds refuge in the home of Elizabeth and John Fuller, new acquaintances through a mutual friend. “Just for a night,” she tells Elizabeth over the phone. This changes to “three or four days” upon arrival and becomes a month.
While Fuller’s husband John objects mightily, there seems little to be done, because Bette Davis is, after all, Bette Davis, and Liz Fuller grew up worshiping this woman, following in her grandmother’s footsteps as she did so. A bit of a believer in the mystical, Fuller also believes that Davis has been guided to her by a Divine Source.
Bette Davis experiencing the suburban life is great story. At McDonald’s she talks Fuller’s son Christopher out of a temper tantrum by using her own experience with the casting of Gone With The Wind as a lesson in how to behave when you don’t get what you want. She deals with people who have no idea who she is, as well as the ones who are surprised she is alive. She corrects people on her own, as well as a few others’, history. This woman is hanging on to the final vestiges of fame, and her grip is vice-like.
Fuller seems to have remembered all Davis’s cryptic lines. When Fuller apologizes for the autograph seekers that gathered at McDonalds and opines that fame must have its drawbacks, Davis quips, “Being a goddamn nobody has its drawbacks!” Did she and her husband Gary Merril fight? “Does Howdy Doody have a wooden ass?” And the best of her vitriol is devoted to Joan Crawford who seems to have owned some serious real estate in Davis’s mind. “She slept with everybody BUT a horny old sea captain! And Rin Tin-Tin.”
While this is a great story, its translation into a play is problematic. This is due in part to the structure of the story – it is really a narrative that begins on the day Davis arrives and ends on the day she leaves. And Ms. Fuller’s choice to play herself is a drawback as well. Rarely do authors succeed in their own plays. And as Bette Davis tells Fuller at the end of the show, “It is wise you have chosen to write and not act.” Not only is Fuller not an actor, she does not seem to understand the fact that the story is of a woman nearly thirty years her junior. It is the younger Ms. Fuller upon whom Davis descends. In this incarnation of the play, Davis remains the age she was in 1985. It is Fuller who has aged. The pieces don’t fit.
As to Mr. Kelly, his work is streamlined – as well it should be after playing Davis for 17 years. He manages to overcome the awkward set and text and deliver a Davis who is vibrant and vicious, caring and cynical, bitter and beloved. We do indeed get who this woman was.
Mark Graham, a friend of mine since college days, does an excellent job of pulling this piece together. The stage at the Snapple is low ceilinged and cramped. Somehow Graham has orchestrated a sort of slow ballet where the actors move from not only one room to another but also entire locations: berry picking, the beach, dining out. This is no small feat. Graham’s overall touch does much to assist the actors in their work as well as aide our journey of seeing life through Bette Davis eyes.
In the end, in spite of all that is going against the tide, you leave with a whiff of Bette clinging to your wrap. Which is the point, is it not?
"Kelly Moore (Mr. Kelly Moore, as the program wants to be sure we know) is great fun to watch as Davis in Elizabeth Fuller’s “Me and Jezebel,” adapted from her memoir.
So it’s a shame that Ms. Fuller, who has chosen to play herself and seems like an affable woman with a fine sense of humor, isn’t exactly an actress."
Anita Gates for New York Times
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