Talkin’ Broadway: “a crowd pleaser…funny and mesmerizing at the same time”
Renowned British essayist, storywriter, actor, and playwright Alan Bennett (probably best known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George) wrote – and even starred in some – two series of dramatic monologues entitled Talking Heads that played on the BBC in 1988 and 1998. Six of these were converted to two programs in a West End production in 1992 and on Off-Broadway in 2003. Spare Stage of San Francisco presents three of those six that feature three eccentric, quirky, but also delightful British ladies – all of a certain age past sixty — living somewhere in the vicinity of Leeds, England. Stephen Drewes directs the two-hour show on the intimate stage of the 47-unit, living-working artistic colony, Royce Gallery. Each tells her story directly looking at us with purpose and in full chatty manner; and each pauses in several breaks to catch her breath while lights go shadow, music pipes in, and slight, themed-to-each changes are made to costumes. The result is a totally good time becoming what feels like best friends with each of these ladies as she tells secrets that surely she would only tell her closest associates.
In “The Hand of God,” we meet Celia, a small-town antique dealer who has definite ideas on what she will and will not carry in her shop (yes to good cottage furniture and clocks “of course” but no to pictures, teddy bears, and definitely none of those little jars of chutney). Laylah Muran de Assereto, as Celia, rattles her words rapidly almost without breath in a very British accent, and her non-stop sentences come out with a musical lift, easily covering several octaves in spoken, vocal range in the same sentence. Celia attentively visits all aging, ailing ladies of her town (especially as they seem surely to be approaching St. Peter’s gate), scrupulously eyeing the legs of tables, the backs of bed headboards, and the bottoms of dishes to ascertain the make, the year, and the possible price she might someday soon get. Of course, that means convincing a maid, a cousin, or someone that once the time has come, her shop should be the final resting place for all the belongings she deems of some worth.
Next to her chair on the empty stage sits a small table with a chest. From that chest as lights go down periodically and Bobby McFerrin’s vocals of familiar classical tunes fill the air, Celia changes earrings and necklaces. Her story then continues, including one ditty where her voice becomes even more intense and high in pitch. She tells us about an odd drawing she got of a finger that happened to be in a frame she did find interesting. She practically giggles as she explains that a young man in his twenties comes into her shop acting very excited about a table the framed, silly picture was sitting on. Promising to come back to get it later, he suddenly decides first to give her one hundred pounds for the frame and finger. Believing she has duped yet again someone to pay much more than the item is really worth, Celia is soon to be in for a huge shock that will make her famous in headlines across the country. Ms. De Assereto never misses a beat in telling her tale and is so delicious a storyteller, I actually wanted her to stay longer on stage rather than take a bow and leave.
But she had to give way to Miss Fozzard, a woman with slippered feet resting ever so delicately on a small stool while she sits in a chair and in a position that immediately brought Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre to mind. With tightly curled, bright red hair and alternating her sweaters, blouses, and shawls during her monologue, Anne Larson is a woman obsessed with caring for the health of her feet as we will discover in “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet.” As a department store clerk in soft furnishings, she sees nothing odd about her weekly trips to a podiatrist, even though she is also now the caretaker of her sullen, stroke-suffering brother, Bernard.
When her regular foot doctor must move away, assuring her to find just the right replacement (“I’d hate for those feet to fall in the wrong hands”), she is not that upset when she meets the new foot attender, Mr. Dunderdale, “a refined-looking fellow, 70-odd and with a fine lock of hair.” That he soon begins to shower her with new shoes at every visit and then to request she walk on his back as he lies of the floor crying ever more loudly “Yes, Yes, Yes” seems not that odd to her. What is upsetting is how Estelle, who works in floor coverings at the department store, has spread much gossip about her and how her brother seems to be recovering in very strange ways behind locked doors with that young Australian girl she hired as his care-giver. Anne Larson never lets us forget that Miss Fozzard is quite the proper English lady of some distinction, even if she is now taking money when she visits Mr. Dunderdale rather than paying him for his services.
We last meet a vicar’s wife, Susan, in “Bed Among the Lentils.” Sitting in a straight-back chair with mid-parted, stringy blonde hair, Susan (Susan Maeder) is not shy in telling us that being a parish wife is not all that it is cooked up to be, especially when married to a overly pompous, rather sexless Jeffrey. Not that she sees herself any great catch. “The hair, the wan smile, the flat chest … You’d think I was just cut out for God himself,” she admits to us with an always slightly cocked head. After being cut off at the local shop because her unpaid debts have risen too close to heaven due to her frequents stop-ins for more sherry, Susan goes further afield. She finds a shop run by Mr. Ramesh, a rather gorgeous, twenty-six-year-old Indian immigrant who just happens to have a room with a bed over the shop that he is willing to close early. Mr. Ramesh ends up teaching Susan a thing or two about life and about herself; and the result is career-enhancing for her ambitious husband and infuriating for his doting parish women, the Fan Club. Susan Meader keeps us chuckling as she too changes outfits hung on the hat tree next to her to match the shifting moods of her story.
As a trio, this configuration of Alan Bennett’s original Talking Heads at Spare Stage is a crowd pleaser, even if the small audience is not quite crowd-size. Three very different eccentrics spin tales that are funny and mesmerizing at the same time.
EDGE Media Network , March 14, 2016: “Sublime and Unspeakably Funny”
Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” was originally developed for TV, and later became a series of radio plays. In each of these three short solo plays, a woman gets keener insight into human nature through some, well, let’s politely call them oddball circumstances over the course of a few days plucked out of the characters’ lives.
In “The Hand of God,” Laylah Muran de Assereto (former producer of the short play festival Sheherezade) is a grasping antiques dealer hovering over the bed of a wealthy, dying neighbor, with the squinty-eyed demeanor of a vulture that has never eaten in its entire life. Indeed, Muran delivers her lines about antique elm wood and silver in tones that suggest she’s (demurely) salivating.
She hopes to make off with some rare pieces once the old biddy is gone, but ends up with just a box of junk. She’s the sort who bemoans that nobody has standards or taste anymore, but, without getting into spoilers, it soon turns out she’s the one who doesn’t recognize the value in things.
Act Two, “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet” is the clear MVP of the bunch. Annie Larson (a Thrillpeddlers alum from “Tinsel Tarts” and “Pearls Over Shanghai,” which automatically qualifies us for her fan club) plays a middle-aged woman with an unremarkable life, distinctly resentful about caring for her stroke-ridden older brother.
Her only delight is a crush on her strange but unflappably polite podiatrist, who seems a bit like a kinky Mr. Rogers with Cary Grant’s voice. Larson is fine as Miss Fozzard but hysterical when she affectingly imitates the upright posture and gentile newscaster voice of her weird but dignified beau. It’s impossible to do the delivery justice in words.
“Miss Fozzard” is basically one long joke, slowly snowballing up to a two-sentence punch line that brings the house down. Though this is often staged as a melancholy piece, Larson seems oddly but charmingly content, as if enjoying a particularly savory bit of wisdom and finding she likes it in spite of herself.
Finally, we get “Bed Among the Lentils.” Susan Maeder plays the alcoholic wife of a small town vicar who is something of a petty celebrity with the neighbors. This is, naturally, a story about faith, both gaining it and losing it. Not faith in God particularly (although it comes up), but rather in people, and in life.
The vicar’s wife, whose every movement and syllable suggests excruciating self-consciousness but who is at the same time flatly unaware of how everyone actually perceives her, gets ground down by the petty disappointments of living. She seems bemused, but watching Maeder for a while suggests that this is actually a character going quietly mad. Eventually, she starts an affair with an Indian shopkeeper, something that happens almost by accident.
This is a Spare Stage show, and the production sticks by that name: The set is nothing but black curtains, wooden floor, and just enough furniture that the actor isn’t on her feet the entire time, as if they were all monks who had foresworn material things so as to devote themselves entirely to the spirit of drama.
Someone in the opening night audience referred to “Talking Heads” as “sublime British comedy,” which is perhaps only half true, although it is the better half. Bits like “Miss Fozzard,” in the hands of director Stephen Drewes, actually are sublime, and unspeakably funny, in that way when you can barely contain your howls not just at the joke that you’ve just heard, but also at the one yet to come but which you know is on the tip of the actor’s tongue.
Something like “Bed in the Lentils,” on the other hand, aims at being more quietly profound. Which doesn’t work as well once it strays into the “exotic foreigner teaches life lesson to spiritually bereft white person” territory that has been charted more times than necessary already.
Those issues aside, “Talking Heads” is starkly witty, and the performers are downright soothing to watch and listen. That the material was originally written for serial format is unsurprising, since the addictive, binge-inducing qualities are still very much present. It’s a three-weekend run only, so get in while the getting is good.
“Talking Heads” plays through March 27 at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street. For tickets and information, visit SpareStage.com