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07 October 2008

Theater Review: Inside Privates Lives for a Slightly Catty Characterizations of 20th Century Newsmakers

You’ll be asked to turn off your cell phones, but for the Sunday evening performances of “Inside Private Lives” at the Fremont Centre Theatre, you don’t have to zip your lips. Backtalk is heavily encouraged.

After all, the six people who will make up the bill are from a cast of 16 newsmakers who often sought attention.

The cast of characters are all from the 20th century and changes from night to night. While they break the fourth wall and speak, touch and even dance with audience members, they do not interact with each other. One character at a time, tells his or her story. The night I attended, Kristin Stone opened the evening as Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender personality. During her heyday in the 1950s the joke was: "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad." Jorgensen is disappointed to find that Playboy magazine isn’t interested in having her as a centerfold and chides the audience members as Hugh Hefner and other Playboy related people for their lack of interest. Stone is charming and polished, the model of the June Cleaver-type of woman who was just naughty enough to become a nightclub act (Jorgensen died in 1989)

Adam LeBow was a sincere, young Elia Kazan, who is meeting with his friends who had been in the Communist cell with him. He’s been recalled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee where he will names names, an act that will save him from being blacklisted but would follow him for decades.

While Kazan and Jorgensen are polite, Leonora Gershman’s Julia Phillips is a foul-mouthed bitter woman on cocaine, railing at the executives who are firing her even though she won an Academy Award in 1973 for producing “The Sting” (an honor shared with Tony Bill and her then-husband Michael Phillips). She also was one of the producers of the 1977 “Taxi Driver” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and would, in 1991, write “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” a book that topped the New York Times bestseller list but named high profile names in Hollywood.

For those who don’t remember, former president Jimmy Carter had a younger brother, Billy (Bryan Safi), who was best known for swilling beer and behaving badly. With his brother running for re-election, Billy has just been told he won’t be allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention and proceeds to get drunk.

David Shofner as David Koresh isn’t mesmerizing, yet does have the kind of confidence one would expect from a man who was accused of taking young girls as his wives and concubines and made Waco, Texas a fiery inferno in 1993. Shofner’s Koresh has just announced the abolishment of all marital bonds and his intention to become the husband of all the faithful women.

Mary MacDonald as Marge Schott has come before a committee hoping to be cleared to adopt a child. The infamous foul-mouthed former owner of the Cincinnati Reds was well-known for her love of her St. Bernard, her racist slurs and her praise of Hitler who began good, but just went too far. MacDonald’s Schott is a tough woman, who wants to be one of the boys and is utterly oblivious to the effect of her cringe-worthy sentiments.

Phillips died in 2002. Kazan in 2003. Carter in 1988. Schott, in 2004. None of the characters are living.

Other characters who might appear would be King Edward VIII (Freddy Douglas), Ann Landers (Diana Morrison), evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson (Molly Hagan), Channeler of the spirit “Seth” Jane Roberts, (Maddisen Krown), Tupperware Home Sales innovator Brownie Wise (Eileen O'Connell), IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Paul Thomas Ryan), and the woman Edward gave up his throne for, Wallis Simpson (Shelia Wolf).

Under the direction of Lee Michael Cohn, the segments are funny and generally flow although with audience participation some of the pacing is unpredictable. Yet on the night I attended, the performers handled the questions and minor heckling with grace and in character.

Originally opening in Los Angeles in October 2006, this production was performed in New York City and was part of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Inside Private Lives continues until sometime in November at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Sundays, 7 p.m. General admission, $25; seniors and students $20. Call (866) 811-4111.

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