Whatever else the great American writers Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker have in common, they are each by coincidence the subject of solo stage plays that are opening tonight, “The Belle of Amherst” in which Joely Richardson portrays the 19th century poet and wit; and “Excuse My Dust,” in which Jennifer Engstrom portrays characters created by the 20th century wit and poet.
The Belle Of Amherst at Westside Theater
At the heart of Emily Dickinson’s story is a mystery. How was a virtual recluse able to produce a body of poems of such worldly knowledge and emotional depth? She published only 7 poems during her lifetime, all of them anonymously; her sister discovered 1,775 more upon Dickinson’s death at age 55. It took another 70 years for all of them to be published, and for her reputation to be secured as one of America’s greatest poets.
Into this vacuum, playwright William Luce and the actress Julie Harris bravely strode nearly 40 years ago, creating a one-woman show that weaves Dickinson’s poetry with excerpts from her letters and imagined conversations with 15 people in her life, all framed as a chat with a rare visitor – the audience. They gave it the ironic title “The Belle of Amherst,” based on a letter she wrote to a friend (quoted in the play) when she was a teenager: “I expect I shall be the Belle of Amherst when I reach my seventeenth year. I don’t doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age.”
“The Belle of Amherst,” directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, debuted on Broadway in 1976 and ran for four months, winning Harris one of her six Tony Awards.
But it didn’t end there. Harris took it on the road for years. She made a recording of it, which won her a Grammy. PBS recorded her performance for television. Her entire performance is available on Youtube.
Now a year after Julie Harris’ death, “The Belle of Amherst” is being revived at the Westside Theater through January 25, directed by Steve Cosson (the artistic director of The Civilians), and starring Joely Richardson, who is best known as the wife on the TV series “Nip/Tuck,” and as the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave.
Richardson is a fine actress who has performed Off-Broadway several times before. Comparisons are generally odious, but in this case they are unfortunately necessary, because, without Harris’ precise, shaded and varied performance, one is left to wonder what all the fuss was about. “The Belle of Amherst” becomes the sort of play one ought to like.
Dressed in the “bridal white” dress for which Dickinson was known, Richardson (who is 5’9″ compared to Julie Harris’ — and Emily Dickinson’s — 5’4″) exhibits an awkward posture and eccentric, exaggerated gestures that seem intended to emphasize the character’s endearing gawkiness. But there is little compensating sense of her brilliance.
She is a cheerful hostess, with little hint of the sadness and pain of her life, which makes one wonder why she never ventured from her family’s estate in the last decades of her life. The explanation that Luce puts into Emily Dickinson’s mouth is even more dubious:
“Here in Amherst, I’m known as Squire Edward Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter…I guess people in small towns must have their local characters. And for Amherst, that’s what I am. But do you know something? I enjoy the game. I’ve never said this to anyone before, but I’ll tell you. I do it on purpose. The white dress, the seclusion. It’s all deliberate.”
If it’s all an act, then why isn’t Dickinson more of an actress? Her encounters with the people from her past seem little different from her address to the audience, despite the change in lighting.
To the extent that Richardson comes through in “The Belle of Amherst,” it’s in the delivery of Dickinson’s poems, which Luce places artfully throughout his play. They do seem finely suited for the stage. As Emily Dickinson put it in one of the poems Richardson recites:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Excuse My Dust at SoHo Playhouse
Dorothy Parker is known now mostly for her best wisecracks – as a critic…
Katherine Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B”
“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly,” she said of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “It should be thrown with great force.”
…and as a barfly:
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
She once said she would like the epitaph on her gravestone to read “Excuse My Dust.”
That last witticism is the title that Jennifer Engstrom has given to her show running at the SoHo Playhouse through November 9th, a clever choice if a bit misleading. Engstrom does not play Miss Parker delivering her barbs at the Algonquin. If it’s true that, as Dorothy Parker said, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue,” the next thing she did was put some paper in the typewriter. Parker was an accomplished poet and short story writer. Engstrom has chosen five of Parker’s stories that have a first-person woman narrator, and she plays those women, using the stories as her text. In “The Garter,” a short story published in the New Yorker Magazine in 1928, a woman sits nervously at a “foul party where I don’t know a soul” and realizes her garter has just broken; Engstrom delivers the interior monologue that Parker has written. In “A Telephone Call,” a woman prays to God that a man will telephone her, as he’s promised to do, at 5 p.m. The time arrives; there is no call. As she speaks to herself, it becomes clear that she is his mistress. Engstrom plays a woman who dances with a klutz in “The Waltz”; gets drunk with a man named Fred in “Just A Little One”; consoles a friend named Mona who has just broken up with her boyfriend in “Lady With A Lamp.” It’s not clear whether any of these characters are supposed to be the same woman, but they share a deep voice that seems to have been marinated in nights of whiskey and cigarettes, and all are trying to hide their vulnerability, some more successfully than others. These are stories that show traces of the Parker wit, but it’s indirect, and they are more obviously laced with sadness and humiliation – the plight of the single woman. It’s easier to laugh (or at least smile) when reading passages from these stories than to do so when an actress is delivering them credibly a few feet away. It would feel like laughing at a person who’s sharing their sorrow with you. I’m not sure whether this is a downside of Engstrom’s delivery or inherent in the stories. In either case, there is surcease with the poems. As with Joely Richardson in “The Belle of Amherst,” Engstrom is at her best when reciting some choice poems, such as:
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.