Created by Michael McHugh, directed by Peter Tupitza, and starring the fabulous Eric Singel, JC Productions’ revival of Joan Crawford in Her Own Words reunites the show’s original team for a revamped version of their 1990s hit, with some newly added material for the current Fringe presentation. As indicated by the title, the up-close-and-personal direct-address monologue, staged in the intimate upstairs space at Tabu Lounge & Bar, is a fluid and revealing montage comprised entirely of direct quotations from Crawford’s autobiographical writings and the TV and radio interviews she gave, along with some amusing ad-libbed banter and occasional interactions with the audience, and a sardonic introductory voice-over announcement (by Melissa Bernard) advising us of the demanding actress’s inordinately long list of requirements and expectations.
If you’re expecting an over-the-top drag show filled with camp histrionics, you will be surprised by the psychological depth and subtlety of McHugh’s well-researched script, Tupitza’s tempered direction, and Singel’s tour-de-force performance; it’s every bit as genuinely poignant as it is laugh-out-loud funny, in its incisive recounting of Crawford’s severely troubled life and clearly disturbed psyche. Set in 1974, on the evening of her last public appearance (co-hosting a book-release party at The Rainbow Room for her friend and publicist John Springer), the legendary movie star welcomes us into her home on New York’s Upper East Side (furnished by Tupitza with a chair and table, family photos, an Oscar, her collection of big-eyed-waif paintings by Margaret Keane, and a ubiquitous cocktail glass and bottle of liquor), to tell us about herself and to offer a defense against the well-known attacks leveled against her by critics and her own adopted children (Christina Crawford’s scathing exposé Mommie Dearest was published in 1978, the year after Joan’s death, but its contents are foreshadowed in the show’s passages about her strict and abusive upbringing and their estranged relationship).
Dressed to the nines in the retro-style of the legendary movie star (with a tightly-coifed wig styled by Lisa Miller Challenger), Singel affects Crawford’s refined voice and polished mannerisms, and then suddenly breaks into hysterical uncontrolled outbursts and hilariously demonstrative facial expressions that belie the real-life character’s well-rehearsed elegant demeanor. Moving back and forth through the audience to refresh her drink at one of the venue’s cabaret tables, Singel’s masterful portrayal of Crawford slowly evinces the effects of the alcohol, becoming increasingly emotional and sentimental, faintly slurring her words, and getting slightly wobbly in her movements. Along with naming names and dishing the dirt on a full roster of Hollywood celebrities (including searing criticisms of Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor), Crawford reveals her insecurities and loneliness, discusses the details of her unhappy childhood and failed marriages, ultimately acknowledges her long-time drinking problem, and explains her compulsion for discipline and control – sorely unaware that her own words are as damning as anything said about her by others.
JC Productions’ thoroughly engaging tragicomic presentation of Joan Crawford in Her Own Words will not only make you laugh at the titular star’s outrageous behavior, it will also generate some unexpected sympathy for her lonely and miserable existence.
Running Time: 75 minutes, without intermission.
Joan Crawford in Her Own Words plays through Sunday, September 24, 2017, at JC Productions, performing at Tabu Lounge & Bar, 2nd floor – 200 South 12th Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.