The Lady with All the Answers
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 12, 2009
There's one question that I would have loved to have been able to ask Judith Ivey as Ann Landers in David Rambo's play The Lady with All the Answers: Who are you talking to?
The conceit of Rambo's piece is that Eppie Lederer (who wrote an advice column under the name Ann Landers for decades) is at home, working late at her well-appointed desk, drafting a column that, she says repeatedly, is the hardest she's ever had to write. It turns out that it's the famous divorce column, dated July 1, 1975—one in which she revealed to her readers that her marriage was ending (as a regular reader of Ann Landers in the '70s and '80s I realized which column it was almost from the first moments of the show).
So, ok, Rambo is framing his biographical drama around a pivotal event in his subject's life—the kind of milestone that makes a person reflect, think back, take stock. All well and good as far as providing a raison d'etre for the character on stage to muse aloud about the things she's done.
But suddenly, as she's looking over a file full of letters from readers that she is contemplating for inclusion in a planned book, Eppie/Ann looks up and starts talking to us. And once she starts, she never stops. Letters that she reads aloud or recalls are punctuated with knowing smiles and raised eyebrows, for our benefit; she even takes polls of the audience, for crying out loud.
And I kept thinking, over and over again: are we in her living room/office with her on this fateful night? Is she delusional, imagining a crowd of people even though she's by herself? At intermission, she announces that she's going to take a bath, and that we can't come with her. Is she serious?
The thing is, it would have been so simple for Rambo to create a version of his play where his heroine could interact naturally and organically with her audience. She could be giving a lecture, let's say, or appearing in a "greatest hits" evening at Carnegie Hall or something. The Eppie he creates here clearly loves interacting with her readers, and Ivey utterly revels in it; the play works best when the relationship between us and her is exploited. If only Rambo had seen fit to write this in such a way that the relationship actually made sense.
The Big Emotional Life Milestone gambit fails anyway, because Rambo and the real Eppie Lederer are/were not at all forthcoming in disclosing the details behind it. We never know why her husband has cheated on her, or how she really feels about it, or what their marriage was really like, etc. It's just a convenience—a cliche really: a playwright's idea of what a solo play is supposed to be built around.
If The Lady with All the Answers never shows us the psychological truth of its main character, it is successful in reminding us why Eppie/Ann is somebody worth remembering. She was a smart, powerful woman in an age when such women were rare in public life; more important, she tore down barriers and smashed taboos about important social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and, yes, divorce. She helped create, for better or worse, the New Frontier in American mores.
Ivey is adorable in the role, letting her own star quality define that of her character. The physical trappings of the production—Neil Patel's lush set, Martin Pakledinaz's almost-over-the-top costumes, and especially Paul Huntley's rendering of the trademark bouffant—all accomplish what they set out to do. B.J. Jones's direction is seamless.
After I saw The Lady with All the Answers, I had a good time reminiscing with my sister about the Ann Landers columns we'd read years ago, and also perusing the Internet to fill in the gaps of Rambo's play. And I certainly had a good time watching Ivey's performance. But Ivey and Eppie deserve a more careful vehicle than this.