Ruth Draper is not a household word for you? Well, you are forgiven. She was born in 1884 and performed monologues through the early 1950s. The grayest of the gray-haired in the audience may recall a moment or two of her performances. The rest of us will have to rely on YouTube — or Annette Bening, who is a household word in our time — to bring Draper to life. And so she does on the Geffen Playhouse.
So why should we care about Ms Draper? Well, children, gather ye ’round and let me try to make the case for you. She is credited with having birthed the monologue as a legitimate performance form, which, as we all know, is a boon to current financially strapped theater companies. In her own time, she became wealthy in part because her performances were so inexpensive to produce. In her youth she hung out with the likes of Henry James and Noël Coward. She is also credited with having inspired such contemporary performers as Lily Tomlin and Tina Fey, who have adopted her underlying tool of taking on the roles of multiple characters.
Draper’s characters were based on real people. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she often gently spoofed upper-crust women leading busy and empty lives. Bening stays true to the original characterizations. Do not expect to go to the Geffen and hear the earthy interpretations of Tomlin’s no-holds-barred telephone operator, Ernestine. Bening plays Draper straight. Her characters are gentle prods at gentle, often silly, women. These may have been outrageous in the 1920’s and ’30s, and there are certainly many women (and men) leading lives equally filled with trivia nowadays, but they hardly produce belly laughs or outrage in 2014.
Bening tackles four of Draper’s best-known skits. Beginning with “A Class in Greek Poise,” draped in a quasi-Grecian gown, she exhorts a class of unseen women — the most lithe of whom admits to weighing 199 pounds — that they must handle themselves at all times with Grecian grace, through attending to their breathing (yes, hear that, all you yoga and Pilates devotees out there) and by all means eat less. It is diet disguised as philosophy and psychology in pop form, apparently alive and well as far back as the 1920s.
Her next characterization is “A Debutante at a Dance.” At a dressing table tucked in the corner of the spare stage, Bening slips quickly into her new costume, a flapper’s dress. Exhausted after an hour and a half of uninterrupted dancing, she plops into a chair and prattles on about how wonderful the dance floor is, how great it is at last to be a part of society, and the importance of being intelligent. Thinking and/or intelligence is a thread that runs through all of the four characters that are part of the evening. All feint at an intellectual existence while dwelling on momentous issues like gossip, lunch arrangements, and dieting.
Getting straight to the point, the monologue that comes closest to evoking belly laughs is “Doctors and Diets.” This time Bening is the full-figured matron in blue, wearing an outrageous hat. She has invited four friends to lunch at some tony restaurant where, mon dieu, she is not recognized by the headwaiter who cannot seem to find her reservation. What an embarrassment. She seems to know half the other patrons, all of whom are apparently also wearing hats, which she comments on as being fabulous. Once seated it is all gossip, medical horror stories, and diets, diets, diets. The twist at the end is delicious, if not low fat.
The evening ends with a Draper classic, “The Italian Lesson.” As Bening changes into a glamorous, pink satin, feathered dressing gown, a bel-canto aria floats in the background; she enters and perches on her pink chaise. Her Italian teacher is there and Bening begins the lesson with the opening sentence of the “Divine Comedy” which she idiosyncratically translates. The opening sentence is as far as she gets as there are a parade of interruptions: the cook, the manicurist, the nanny, and those pesky children; not to mention the multiple phone calls: a frosty chat with the husband, committee arrangements, luncheon arrangements, a bit of gossip and the lover. All of this is managed amid repetitions of that pesky sentence from Dante and with the skill of a commandant. Little in the way of an Italian lesson takes place. To see how closely Bening achieves Draper’s tone, you might want to check out the YouTube recording of Draper’s own performance.
Which brings me back to the original point: how much should, or do, we care about revisiting Ruth Draper? Put another way, would most of us be interested in this project if it were not being performed by someone of Annette Bening’s stature? Bening is reverential to the original Draper. Admittedly she is a pleasure to watch, however she has been much more interesting in more interesting vehicles. I do not think we would care much about these monologues performed by a nobody. As engaging a performer as Bening is, her fidelity to the original leaves us in the position of spending the evening with tiresome women who possibly could have amounted to more had they come of age in the post-feminist era. Then again, they might have been just as vapid but with a more current vocabulary. In the end it might do us some good to laugh along with her. It is a matter of taste.