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Theater Review:

"DEATH ON A PINK CARPET" at Live Bait Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Thankfully, playwright Edward Thomas-Herrera does not approach his new Lana Turner-themed play, "Death on a Pink Carpet," with the glossy – and linear -- sensationalism of an AMC "Backstory" episode. Instead he frames his abstract exploration of scandal, glamour and the revised memories of a celluloid existence within a highly polished veneer of celebrity worship. Hollywood movie star Turner, therefore, symbolizes the fate of so many studio-shackled actors of the 1930s through 1950s who got seduced into living their on-screen personas with devastating results.

"Death on a Pink Carpet," receiving its world premiere at Live Bait Theater, is inspired by Turner’s affair with low-level mobster/extortionist Johnny Stompanato, who was stabbed to death by the star’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, following a violent argument with Turner. While it remains unclear whether or not Crane took the rap for her mother, who abhorred bad publicity, the details of the crime are not as important as the dysfunctional Hollywood lifestyle and skewed American Dream that led to this tragedy.

Although clunky in parts (notably segments that do not flow so seamlessly from real life to reenacted film clips), "Death on a Pink Carpet" has been structured with great care. A three-member chorus in the form of makeup artists/assistants/publicists corresponds to the doomed triumvirate of Lana, Johnny and Cheryl. Mary Griswold’s billowing curtain-ensconced set accented by directors’ chairs and Steven Conway’s creamy glam lighting recreate the confectionery-tinged movie-industry mystique of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Similar in style to his buoyantly non-chronological adaptation of Letitia Baldridge’s "Of Diamonds and Diplomats," Thomas- Herrera’s latest creative glimpse into the celebrity fishbowl of a similar era transports its central figures into the realm of archetype. Yet they are by no means wooden. They become something larger than themselves and, in essence, reflect back on what the public demands of those it both worships and reviles.

Yet, within this effective metaphoric structure, the playwright also loses sight of Turner’s and Stompanato’s complex relationship, which appeared to be smothered in callous opportunism by both parties. In fact, Stompanato recedes into the background (perhaps a deliberate reference to the mobster’s frustration at being hidden from the public by the glimmering publicity-obsessed Turner). So we rarely get his side of the story.

Ultimately, the real leading lady of this stylized drama is Cheryl Crane, whose physical and emotional abuse is extensively analyzed. At certain points, "Death on a Pink Carpet" comes very close to being a stage version of "Mommie Dearest." Yet Cheryl’s story is the most heartwrenching – particularly her molestation by actor Lex Barker, one of Turner’s seven husbands.

Director Jay Paul Skelton luminously recreates the self-conscious "camera angles" of Turner’s filmic universe on stage – reinforcing the glowering sense of contrivance that seeped into most Hollywood stars’ lives at a time when actors and the characters they portrayed were viewed as indistinguishable. But, on the night I attended, most of the cast (apart from the impressively sympathetic and non-stereotypical Marco Verna as Johnny) suffered from a contagious attack of flubbed lines. The tongue-tied delivery became so prevalent, it distracted from the play’s intricate story.

In addition, Skelton’s chorus members telegraph with whom the audience’s sympathies should lie more than is necessary. For instance, Johnny is often glared at, while Cheryl is tenderly supported. These obvious non-verbals take sides in a way that runs counter to Thomas-Herrera’s more ambiguous script.

Shaky line-delivery aside, Kelly Lynn Hogan remarkably transforms herself into a highly glossed and manufactured Lana Turner, complete with over-rehearsed gestures, gait and facial expressions that always make her look like she’s playing to an unseen camera. At times, though, humanity breaks through the cracks of her insincere smiles. Dina Connolly quietly conveys Cheryl’s emotionally suppressed invisibility. And Rachel Claff is the most earnest member of the chorus.

Most intriguing is Thomas-Herrera’s musical interludes, which are really interior monologues – ranging from "the newspaper aria" to "the Oscar-ceremony trio." This approach comments further on the shams perpetuated by the Hollywood star system.

At the height of Tinsel Town’s golden age, Louis B. Mayer bragged how MGM had more stars than the heavens. But Mayer neglected to mention that most stars shine brightest just before they burn out. Many of his "stars" plummeted into hellish desperation. "Death on a Pink Carpet" reminds us of their tragic descent.•

"Death on a Pink Carpet" runs through March 31 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. Tickets: $15-$20. Call 773-871-1212 or log onto www.livebaittheater.org.


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