We gave it an A
With all the Hollywood talent and lavish shows on tap this Broadway season, it might seem outrageous to claim that its probable high point involves just a single chair and a septuagenarian. Elaine Stritch has never been a film or TV star, but she is a bona fide theater legend, the queen of what she calls ”the 11 o’clock number.” And from beginning to end, Elaine Stritch at Liberty plays like one sublimely satisfying showstopper. At 77, Stritch has the caustic wit of a veteran, plus the love-me energy of a just-born star. It’s no shock she can compete with anything on Broadway: She’s a distillation of what makes the theater great.
Stritch crafted this autobiographical piece with New Yorker theater critic John Lahr. Together they take us on a thrilling ride through significant stretches of stage history — all made vivid via Stritch’s radiant smiles and deep frowns (which suggest a person who has an appetite for triumph and its bitter aftertaste). Stritch’s stories include her memorably weird date with a hot young Marlon Brando (who took her to the library, a church…and his apartment) and the epic tale of how, for a week, she was forced to frantically zip between New York and New Haven to fulfill commitments to two shows (Call Me Madam and Pal Joey) on the same night. She gets one of her biggest laughs by detailing why she dumped Ben Gazzara for Rock Hudson (”and we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be”). By the time she uses her bullhorn voice to belt that seminal song of showbiz survival — Stephen Sondheim’s ”I’m Still Here” — we’re wholly convinced: No one has earned the right to sing it more than she.
Stritch’s stature and pack-’em-in pizzazz would take this one-woman show into privileged realms if she simply told her story and sang great songs by the Gershwins and Noel Coward. But she and Lahr have a stickier agenda, and it glues the show together. References to Stritch’s infamous love of alcohol begin as punchlines but evolve into the night’s nucleus. She admits that because of booze, she’s missed out on a lot of her life. So, in a neat twist, the show functions as a reclamation. Ultimately, Stritch eases us down a solitary road, talking us through the ache of her too-short marriage and dropping prickly details, like the fact that Edward Albee calls her every Christmas to make sure she’s not alone. Amazingly, this soul-searching is accomplished with only the slightest sentimentality. Stritch seldom stops with the zingers — and her bravado never rings false. She may occasionally seem frail, but we never lose faith in her indestructibility.
All her frankness sets squarely with our current taste for public bloodletting. But it also says a lot about Stritch’s courage, and about what the theater gives and takes away. Of course, we’re not experiencing an off-the-cuff confession. It’s a scripted program — in many ways, an illusion. But the only time the illusion fails is when Stritch suggests she’s clueless as to why she hooks audiences so completely. Anyone this good knows precisely what she’s doing.