Dorothy Parker claimed, famously, that she was “just a little Jewish girl, trying to be cute.” In fact, she was a legendary wit; the first female drama critic in America; and a successful writer of poetry, book reviews, short stories, and movie scripts. She may well have been the inventor of snark.
Claudia Baumgarten looks somewhat like Parker, and is well-costumed in a brown suit and gravity-defying hat. She holds her martini just so, dances with brio, and spits out witticisms with well-honed indignation. She is especially effective in the scenes where she waits by a phone for a man to call. “He’ll be cross if he sees that I have been crying. They don’t like you to cry.”
Many of Parker’s best one-liners are here: “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” “All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.”
Parker was the epitome of New York sophistication. She and a small group of writers and actors lunched regularly at the Algonquin Hotel. The “Algonquin Round Table” became nationally known for wisecracks, witticisms, and repartee. Among its members were playwright George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross (the New Yorker editor), and actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Privately, Parker was miserable, with two unhappy marriages and several unfortunate affairs. She was also, surprisingly, a political activist, and worked against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. She helped organize Hollywood screenwriters, and was blacklisted in the 1950s.
Director Diana E.H. Shortes keeps the mood changing and the movement lively and engaging. One comes away with a sense of empathy for Parker, who lived in a time when women were encouraged to believe that a man was the answer to every question. Baumgarten gives a fine, somewhat brittle performance. I would be interested to see the actress go even deeper into the pain underlying the brilliance.
A highlight of the production is a set piece in which Parker dances with imaginary men, who commit various social gaffes, such as kicking her, stepping on her feet, or being spectacularly boring. Parker’s talent is to offer us, in the middle of such a social dilemma, the pleasure of finding out what she is really thinking.
Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.
Wit and Wrath: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker plays through July 12, 2017, at Pursuit Wine Bar – 1421 H Street NE – in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, purchase them at the venue, or purchase them online.