When Sean Joseph Casey crawls out of the dark, his life is in a sorry state. Old and washed up, with no place to go and no apparent friend in the world, he's living out his last days holed up in an abandoned building, crooning to Judy Garland records and smooching the great singer's old photos. Strange as Casey might seem, we soon discover the torch he carries is real. He was Garland's true friend and he misses her terribly. All he wants is to spend his last days remembering her ruby-slippered glory. The weight of memory and its burdens of sadness and disappointment are both the strength and the downfall of Diana Howie's Judy's Friend & Marilyn's Boy, playing at Theatre New West.
Some of Casey's stories about the past are fascinating. As one of the "shorties" in the gargantuan cast of Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, Casey was privy to some wicked gossip, which he shares with conspiratorial glee. The iron-hearted ruler of MGM, Lois B. Mayer, called sad-eyed, teenaged Garland "my little hunchback." And while many know that Buddy Ebsen had to quit the film because the Tin Man's silver paint sent him to the hospital with lung poisoning, Casey also dishes the dirt on Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. She was "laid up for six weeks from a fire on her broomstick." When she returned, she refused the studio's efforts to put her back on the same broomstick wearing no more protection than a fireproof witch dress. So the stunt double went up in flames instead. Movie-making was bad business back then, and nobody knows that better than Casey, whose career "was like a flush in the toilet" after Dorothy found her way home from Oz.
As entertaining as the film factoids might be, Casey's trip down memory lane doesn't add up to much in the way of dramatic tension. Nothing happens in the here and now. We're told there's a wrecking ball outside, and that Casey's not leaving the abandoned building under any circumstances. But there's no immediate conflict during his hour-long monologue. The lights flicker a few times, threatening him with darkness and silence. Act One manages to end with high drama and bad behavior, but it all comes out of left field and does nothing to deepen Casey's story.
Adam Bires, who plays Casey, also doesn't help the drama much. Although he's no giant, he does stand well over five feet tall -- not exactly Munchkin material. And it's impossible to make us believe that the young man on stage is anywhere close to the eightysomething Casey would have to be if he were part of the Oz family. Director Roy Hamlin's inexplicable casting taxes the imagination beyond reasonable limits.
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Act Two is hobbled by many of the same inconsistencies. A second hour-long monologue is delivered by Jack Baker, a construction worker who enters Casey's abandoned building to clean up before demolition starts. He claims to be Marilyn Monroe's son, her "boy." He cavorts about the stage worrying about his looks and rendering a weak imitation of Monroe's breathy narcissism. "I could have been a model," he gloats and offers a series of poses with his hard hat. Like Casey, Baker also knows lots of sad gossip about his obsession. Not a single family member claimed Monroe's body from the morgue after she died. Joe DiMaggio, her ex, was the one to get her properly buried. Throughout, Baker flirts with the audience and asks what we're doing there, but then never offers a satisfactory reason as to why an audience would be inside a building that is about to be razed.
He prattles off stories about Monroe visiting him on Christmas; he says he enjoyed being her "little secret." He claims that she was only 14 when he was born. That's why we've never heard of him. In the end, he confesses that he might not actually be Monroe's son, that he spent his childhood in foster homes and that he decided he was her son because his last name is Baker and people have told him he looks a lot like her. It's hard to know what the playwright wants us to make of this, other than to think about movie-star images that become so much a part of our history we start to claim them for our own.
Again, the director chose to cast an actor much too young for the role. Marion Bryant, the good-looking young man who plays the construction worker, is probably not yet 30.
The best things anyone might take away from this production are interesting trivia that might be useful at a game table. But as theater, the show comes off as little more than a well-rehearsed acting class.
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