Annette Bening Dazzles In The World Premiere Of “Ruth Draper’s Monologues”

Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014, 9:46:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

Annette Bening as one of the several characters she creates in 'Ruth Draper's Monologues' on stage at the Geffen Playhouse.
Photo by Michael Lamont
Annette Bening as one of the several characters she creates in 'Ruth Draper's Monologues' on stage at the Geffen Playhouse.

For those of you who might be wondering who is Ruth Draper and why is

she being channeled by Annette Bening, in “Ruth Draper’s Monologues,”

currently on stage at The Geffen Playhouse, the answer is simple.

Ruth Draper led the way in 20th Century drama and was referred to as

“the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” 

Her forte was character-driven monologues and monodrama,* and being

one of America’s finest actresses, Annette Bening is the perfect artist

to interpret and perform Draper’s works that are as timely today as they

were when they written by the gifted writer/actress, who so deftly

shined a light on universal fads and foibles of the human condition.

Draper was born into an aristocratic New York family in 1884 and at a

very young age demonstrated her gift for creating different characters

based on the people to whom she was exposed.

Despite the social mores, which frowned upon a theatrical career,

following performing in the parlors of upper crust gentry such as Mrs.

Franklin Roosevelt, Mrs. Waldorf Astor, Mrs. Jon Astor, and Mrs. Felix

Warburg,  Draper’s talent was too big to be confined to drawing room

performances.   Eventually, her family moved to Germany and then to

England where she was besieged with invitations, including a command

performance for King George V and Queen Mary, and soon became the toast

of London.  

Twenty-five years later, she performed for King George VI who awarded

her with membership in the Order of the British Empire with the rank of

Commander. 

Following World War 1, Draper finally made her Broadway debut as the

social mores had changed and it was no longer frowned upon for an upper

class woman to pursue a theatrical career.

Her sets were generally quite sparse, performing with just a table, chair, and a simple shawl as her only props. 

She successfully entertained audiences for almost forty years, capable of delivering her monologues in a half dozen languages.

“Ruth Draper’s Monologues” consists of four of Draper’s classic

pieces that she created from the privileged world she inhabited, and in a

theatrically exciting performance, Bening crawls deeply into the skin

of the different characters she portrays. 

The first sketch is “A Class in Greek Poise,” wherein the character

is conducting an exercise class for society women, most of whom tip the

scales at over 200 pounds. 

Dressed in a white toga, Bening, in keeping with the tradition of

that time period, refers to some of the unseen participants as Mrs.

Carpenter, Mrs. Jefferson, and Mrs. Foster, and in a playful, fun manner

instructs them in a series of exercises designed to encourage weight

loss, uttering such gems as “These bodies are the home of our souls.”  

A most physically agile Bening takes her class through an assortment

of stretches and prances and, as she deftly accomplishes in all of the

sketches, fills the stage with myriad unseen characters who become so

real, you can almost actually seem them and in this case, in their green

bloomers and bathing attire.

The second amusing monologue is “A Debutante at a Dance.”  Bening

makes a quick costume change in a dressing area set up on stage left and

emerges as a young debutante in a flapper dress. 

Endowing her new character with distinctly different physical and

vocal characteristics, Bening’s young girl ruminates about life, the

importance of character and thinking, confessing that she does think a

lot and, “In fact, I think all the time.”

The third sketch “Doctors and Diets” could have been ripped from a

Beverly Hills playbook where just about everyone is on a diet and brings

to mind the classic scene from Henry Jaglom’s “Eating,” where a piece

of cake is passed around a circle of about ten women and there are no

takers. 

In Draper’s hilarious sequence, these are upper crust women who are lunching at a swanky New York restaurant. 

Now adorned in a suit and a hat with a long protruding feather,

Bening’s Mrs. Grimmer is waiting for her friends to join her for lunch. 

After a slight confrontation with the maître d', in a most lady-like

manner regarding the reservation, one by one the guests begin to

arrive. 

After all the unseen friends are seated, Mrs. Grimmer announces that

she is not going to eat but assures her friends that she is fine with

them ordering lunch.

However, each of the ladies reveal that they, too, are dieting and

the orders range from one boiled turnip, which is said to “bring clarity

to the brain,” a serving of a bunch raw carrots, lemon juice made from

eleven lemons, and what can only be defined as an act of defiance, Mrs.

Grimmer orders two chocolate éclairs. 

As often happens when you put a number of ladies together, the gossip

mill begins and through Mrs. Grimmer, we hear delicious tidbits ranging

from who’s getting a divorce, to who has the best doctor, to whose

spouse is being unfaithful. 

Shifting her focus ever now and then, Mrs. Grimmer greets other

imaginary patrons as they pass by her table sending her regards, hellos,

and compliments on their hats. So vivid are these unseen characters,

you can almost feel them as they sweep pass her table.  

After a quick costume change into a pink satin dressing gown adorned

with feathers, Bening now plays an over- extended socialite in “The

Italian Lesson.” 

With the help of a tutor, she is studying Dante’s “Inferno” and takes

it upon herself to translate the text into easier to understand

sentences. 

This is probably the most chaotic, complex, and the longest of the

four monologues, as the playwright has yet again created an assortment

of characters with whom the actress must interact. 

There’s the tutor, her daughter Barbara who keeps interrupting her,

the younger children, one of whom seems to be in the waste paper basket,

the manicurist, Jane the cook, to whom Bening’s character imparts a

long, complicated recipe. 

There is a telephone conversation with her husband Hubert who needs

one of the children to bring his golf driver over to the railway station

at precise time, as well as some other interesting telephone

conversations, one with her son’s math teacher who she informs that

arithmetic is making her son nervous and there was no reason for him

continuing in his lessons. 

There’s also a puppy that she names Dante or Dan for short and

there’s her secretary Miss Swift who must try to keep up with her

employer’s incredibly jammed schedule. 

There is also an amusing conversation with an artist who has just

painted a portrait of her daughter and she gently offers a few

suggestions. “Could you make the ribbon in her hair blue and paint her

as though she were hot.”

There are committee and board meetings to attend, book clubs and yes,

a funeral and in one phone conversation, she says, “Don’t make me

laugh. I’m on my way to a funeral.” 

Then we hear a mysterious phone conversation with someone that causes

the character to lower her voice almost to a whisper as well as

assuming a different physical dynamic.

Draper really captures the reality of over-extended society women

from her era, but any woman who tries to combine career with that of

wife and mother, along with carpooling, sitting on committees, and

supporting charity events, will fully relate to this frenzied character

if not fully, but certainly in part. 

Although the clothing, manners, and mannerisms have changed

throughout the centuries, the one aspect that remains constant is the

human condition.   

The production values are simple, but effective starting with Takeshi

Kata’s scenic design, Daniel Ionazzi’s light design and Catherine

Zuber’s delicious period costume design.  

Bening, who also directed herself, accomplishes a theatrically

commanding tour-de-force, crafting a multitude of living, breathing

unseen characters who crowd the stage and were the groundbreaking Miss

Draper alive today, she would have been most pleased with what took

place on the Geffen Playhouse stage.

*(A theatrical or operatic piece played by a single actor or singer.)

The Geffen Playhouse

Address: 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024

Run: Tuesday - Friday: 8 pm / Saturday: 3 pm & 8 pm / Sunday: 2pm

Closing: Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tickets: $37-$77

Reservations: 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com           

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