Edinburgh Fringe 2021 Review: Call Me Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor before Richard Burton

“I’m so sick of playing the part of Elizabeth Taylor,”  Kayla Boye says in “Call Me Elizabeth.” Of course, Elizabeth Taylor is supposed to be saying this, not Boye, who is portraying the actress and surely not tired of doing so.  Neither, I’ll confess, am I tired of hearing about her. There may always be an audience  for such solo shows that resurrect colorful celebrities to tell their stories, and show off the performer’s skills at impersonation. Boye nails Taylor’s appealing  mix of seductiveness, irreverence, elegance and innocence. If the script may not be among the best of the genre, it’s far from the worst.

Elizabeth welcomes us to her suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel on an afternoon in what must be 1961; “we” are an unnamed male columnist who is interviewing her, apparently in preparation for ghostwriting her autobiography. (From The Hollywood Reporter, published on the day Taylor died in March, 2011: “Elizabeth Taylor never wrote a real autobiography (a quickie in the 60s was panned as superficial) but she did pen two books later in life, one about dieting and one about jewelry…”) 

She is wearing a low-cut black dress and dazzling dangling white earrings, and drinks steadily from a champagne flute. Although she is just 29 years old, Elizabeth Taylor is already a Hollywood star of nearly two decades duration,  a wife for the fourth time (with Eddie Fisher) and a survivor – of domestic abuse, of young widowhood, of scandal and a scandal-mongering press, of a near-fatal illness.  (We see her at several moments gasping in pain.) She had also just won an Academy Award for a film she considered trash, “Butterfield 8,” which she surmised was a sympathy vote for having “come back from the dead.” She tells us she would have preferred the award for either of her two previous performances, in the Tennessee Williams’ films “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “Suddenly Last Summer.”

Over the course of the 70 minutes of  “Call Me Elizabeth,”  Boye offers anecdotes and throwaway tidbits about Taylor’s life up to that point that I didn’t know about or didn’t remember. What sticks out for me, perhaps oddly, are that her father was the owner of an art gallery in Los Angeles, and that she had two sons (and two daughters, although one of them was adopted after the play is set.)  

But I suspect that the appeal of “Call Me Elizabeth” is not what we did not know, but what we did –  her stardom starting with National Velvet, for example; her deep friendship with a series of closeted male co-stars such as Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift; the public turning against her when Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for her —  and what we know is in store for her in the remaining half century of her life.  Telling non-stop stories to a ghostwriter is a less artificial device than exists in most of these kinds of dramatized biographies, but she also takes several telephone calls. Some are from Fisher and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the point of which seems to be to reveal that her marriage to Fisher is troubled.

The last call is from her agent, after she’s said goodbye to the columnist (saying she’s done for the day, and adding suggestively that perhaps they can meet again without the tape recorder.)  The phone call from her agent is to inform her about the cast for the forthcoming “Cleopatra.” She hangs up, gathers up the scandal sheets she was reading, walks to her door, stops, turns around, tilts her head, and, as if testing the sound in her mouth, says “Richard Burton.” Then she lets out a giggle.

That’s the last line, a tease. 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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