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Viv! Fails to Bring Vivien Leigh to Life

The setup:

Academy and Tony Award-winning actress Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tovarich) was plagued by numerous interior demons, abetted by tuberculosis, that made a hash of her personal life and kept her career on a dizzying trajectory of highs and lows. Yet there is one abiding trait that is abundantly evident on screen that overcame all her inner emotional obstacles: her unquenchable vivacity.

It's already there in her breakout role in Fire Over England (1937), a historical biopic about Elizabeth I and the Spanish armada in which she plays a lady of the court in love with a dashing Laurence Olivier, with whom Leigh would start a tempestuous affair leading to their bumpy 20-year marriage. Her immaculate beauty and sparkle got her noticed by Hollywood, where in fairy-tale tradition, she landed the role of her career as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), perhaps the most beloved and famous of all movies.

Twelve years later, more frayed and vulnerable, she devastates the screen as fantasy-overwhelmed Blanche du Bois in Tennessee Williams's Streetcar (1951). The electricity is super clear. Even in her last film, Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965), surrounded by a bevy of co-stars, she enlivens this earnest movie with real glimmers of excitement. Although a true movie star, blessed with incomparable screen presence, she loved theater more, and romped through Shakespeare, usually with husband Olivier as co-star and director, Coward, Shaw, Anouilh and Rattigan. Singing and dancing as a Russian noble posing as a chamber maid, Leigh surprised Broadway in Tovarich (1963), winning a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, until frail health forced her to withdraw. Her vivacity was undeniable.

The execution:

In Viv!, a world premiere from Edge Theatre written and directed by Jim Tommaney (a Houston Press theater critic), there is little evidence of any of Leigh's vivacity or charm. Tyrell Woolbert, slim and sleek in a wonderful black pleated dress cut on the bias, has neglected to bring onstage Leigh's scintillating presence.

With a rich, creamy voice much too alto for Leigh's lighter, more scintillating sizzle, she never captures the feline essence of this fascinating star, and seems to play-act instead of getting under Leigh's twitchy skin. Portraying a screen and stage legend so highly etched in our consciousness is a dubious task at best, but the fire's out in this one.

Woolbert isn't helped by the leaden script, which suffers its own form of manic depression. The rudimentary bio facts float through, treading quickly through Wind, her love of Larry, some dish on movie director George Cukor, teasing anecdotes about Scotty's Gas Station (that infamous gay brothel on Hollywood Boulevard where she would "slum"), but the revelations stay firmly on the surface. Leigh never speaks in her own voice, always quoting snatches from Olivier's autobiography or an assessment from Coward or influential British critic Kenneth Tynan.

Then it's on to a cursory passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" or a few lines from Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra. It's all third-hand info, a play of hearsay, as she plants her feet center stage and spouts her story through the eyes of others. We seldom hear from Leigh herself. There's no kittenish allure (as in her Caesar and Cleopatra), no steely determination and fierce pride (as in her Scarlett), no faded sadness (as in Blanche), no wistful energy (as in Waterlooo Bridge). The fireworks are tamped.

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In a hoary device, Leigh has been conjured by devoted fan Robert Strong (James R. Monaghan), who has plastered the walls of his Greenwich Village apartment with her photos and famous confreres (Coward, Cukor, Peter Finch, Stewart Granger, Robert Taylor, Cole Porter, Brando, et al.). Why Robert is conjured by Tommaney is a mystery, as he has nothing to do but stare adoringly at her and pour glasses of port to lubricate her stories. She doesn't need him to tell her tale, as the play is mostly monologue anyway, except for Robert's extraneous and clunky description of his Romani gypsy ancestry, which makes him a whiz on the Ouija board. Her vanity is fueled by us, not him.

Knowing Leigh's well-documented sexual appetites, she would hardly have waited until the end of the play to give Robert a chaste little peck on the cheek goodbye; she would've pounced as soon as she was conjured. That handsome corsair moustache would have been Robert's downfall...or salvation, perhaps. (Apparently all golden age Hollywood giddily embraced a lack of fidelity and commitment, and remained in a trysting priapic rush of sexual fluidity. Before, during and after their marriage, Sir Larry enjoyed a who's who of male and female sexual escapades.)

The verdict:

If you know little or nothing about Vivien Leigh, then Tommany's Viv! will open a small window onto this incandescent but storm-tossed star of stage and screen. If her miraculous Scarlett or brittle Blanche is fresh in your mind -- and these performances are as revelatory today as ever -- you sadly realize this new stage view only keeps her in the shadows, unenlightened. The story of Vivien Leigh, whose life is a drama all by itself, continues through December 16 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. Purchase tickets online at edgetheatrehouston.com or call 832-894-1843. $10-$

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