The Property Known as Garland
nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
March 20, 2006
Whose idea was it to dress Adrienne Barbeau like one of the Pink Ladies? Before The Property Known as Garland even begins, Barbeau has a tough challenge in creating a real, well-rounded character against larger-than-life images of Judy Garland codified by decades of drag performances (not to mention Judy Davis’s inimitable television portrayal). But 30 years after her last appearance on a New York stage (a Tony-nominated turn in Grease), Barbeau has to stand up to another (considerably less) legendary persona: herself. Clad in a hot pink button down shirt and black pedal pushers, she spends the first half of the show looking (thanks to the costume) and sounding (thanks to Billy Van Zandt’s clunker of a script) unsettlingly like a middle-aged Betty Rizzo, the-tough-gal-with-a-heart-of-gold who made Barbeau—for a brief time, anyway—a Broadway star.
The good news, though, is that she somehow manages to overcome these challenges, giving a compelling enough performance that’s tough to look away from. Of course, that’s not necessarily a compliment, but while Garland isn’t quite the wreck that it could have been, it veers into camp (and poorly-written camp, at that) enough times that it’s hardly an unmitigated success, either.
Set backstage in a Copenhagen dressing room on the evening of Judy Garland’s final concert, The Property Known as Garland begins as a dialogue between the legendary actress and Ed (Kerby Joe Grubb), a theatre employee charged with getting the notoriously unreliable Garland to actually make it on to the stage. (It’s a fairly thankless role, especially when Ed is repeatedly reduced to bickering with Garland over mashed potatoes, but he milks it for laughs and makes the most of it.) His exit leaves the self-proclaimed “living legend” alone in her dressing room—except, of course, for the audience, whom she regales with 47 years’ worth of showbiz gossip while she decides whether or not to go on stage. That’s pretty much it in terms of plot; the rest of this 80-minute performance is about character—oh, yes, and that gossip.
Some of the gossip is fun (tales of Marlene Dietrich’s lack of talent manage to delight the audience), some of it is familiar (yes, we know, Judy married gay guys, and so did her mother and her daughter), and some of it is utter crap (whenever President Kennedy had a bad day at the White House, he called Judy to sing “Over the Rainbow” to him?). And here lies one of the critical problems with The Property Known as Garland: in some sections, Van Zandt’s script sounds like a parlor game wherein players must recite as many facts as possible about a celebrity—in this case, Ms. Garland. Other sections evoke encyclopedia entries or biography chapters hastily changed from third person to first person, resulting in inauthentic-sounding language. Would anyone—never mind Judy Garland—really say some of this? And although Judy’s haze of pills and booze makes for an easy excuse, the script is rife with continuity problems; why does she ask Ed directly if he’s gay in one scene, only to profess mild ignorance of a particular type of man who seems to follow her and other legendary ladies around, only moments later?
Director Glenn Casale uses every corner of the stage, and manages to keep things moving. This is no small feat, given the script’s awkwardness—but it’s a whole other story when Garland engages in bizarre, reflective conversations with disembodied voices. (My companion noted that her plaintive cries of “Mama!” sound eerily like an old Saturday Night Live sketch parodying Liza Minnelli.) Here, both Casale and Van Zandt get into trouble, but somehow, Barbeau manages to hold the audience at least somewhat rapt. Charlie Smith’s sharp set and Richard Winkler’s clean lighting help—though Cynthia Nordstrom’s familiar-looking costumes deserve at least as much credit for setting the tone and mood, both on Barbeau and hanging around as set decoration.
Still, by the end of The Property Known as Garland, it’s clear that any success that the show musters is due almost entirely to Barbeau’s intense spirit, effort, and skill, rather than the particular quality of the piece. It’s unfortunate that the evening’s greatest excitement results from strains of the actual Ms. Garland’s concert overture, which end the show—a harsh reminder that competing with an icon is a dangerous business, even for a hard-working, tough-talking, almost-legend with a heart of gold.