Writer: Lee Tannen
Director: Anthony Biggs
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There can be little doubt that Lucille Ball was a phenomenon both in front of, and behind, the TV cameras. Her phenomenally successful 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy was not only beloved by all, but she and her husband Desi Arnaz produced the show themselves, and its success led their production company to go on to make hit series such as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.
After Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, she met and later married fellow New Yorker Gary Morton, to the delight of Morton’s distant cousin, a young boy and ardent Lucille Ball fan called Lee Tannen. As an adult, Tannen spent a lot of time with his idol, in a role that Morton described as “the babysitter”. And it is from this friendship that Tannen crafted a book, and now a play, about the megastar and her neurotic gay best friend.
As the septuagenarian Ball, Sandra Dickinson – always an undeservedly underrated actress – is, quite frankly, superb. In her hands, Ball becomes a woman who is struggling with the demons that come with no longer being the comedic and production powerhouse that she once was, as much as the adulation from the public is still there. There is a sense that, while her comedic instincts are still as sharp as a button, they are often overtaken by sadness and regret. Still, the moments where Ball is gloriously indiscreet about her Hollywood peers provide some hilarious insights, delivered with great timing by Dickinson.
Unfortunately, her performance is ultimately hamstrung by Tannen’s conceit of concentrating on Ball’s friendship with him. The onstage Tannen (played with rheumy-eyed unctuousness by Matthew Bunn) is a preening, fawning sycophant. He’s also narcissistic to a fault, making sure that his version of Ball tells him on numerous occasions how funny he is. Any momentous moments in her life are judged only by how close Tannen was to the action: for instance, when Ball receives news that her first husband, great friend and greatest love Desi has died, the most important part of his narration is that he was there to keep Lucy company. And this self-obsession pervades throughout, both Tannen the scriptwriter and his onstage alter ego imagining Ball as the comedic sidekick to his own, supposedly hilarious, persona.
Huge moments in Ball’s life are thrown away, or not mentioned at all. There is no exploration of how the comedian’s evident abiding love for her first husband, the father of her two children, affected her second marriage. Indeed, there are only hints about why she chose to spend so much time with a distant relative of her husband’s, and they all come through the prism of a man whose desire to be seen as her best friend dominates proceedings. To its credit, the play does paint Tannen as a self-obsessed man whose opinion of himself as a supremely funny individual may not be truly borne out by the facts. Whether this effect is intentional remains an open question.
Ultimately, this should have been a portrait of a fading star, a reminder of how the shadows of former glories loom large in later life, and Dickinson does her best with the material she is given. But what could be her greatest scene, the only time where her character has the opportunity to be open and honest, subjects Dickinson to mugging gamely as Ball’s thoughts are piped in as a voiceover. Both actor and subject deserve better.
In one scene, the pair laugh at legendary film critic Pauline Kael’s description of Ball’s performance in the movie adaptation of Mame as “so terrible it isn’t boring.” I Loved Lucy is, regrettably, not quite terrible enough, however hard it tries. The abiding memory is of a playwright who considered the show’s three-word title, but only got as far as the first.
Runs until 27 February 2016 | Image: Scott Rylander