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Theatrical Triage

Paper Doll benefits from cosmetic script surgery at Duke's Theater Previews clinic


You could almost say it comes with being a city of medicine, a place with a history of healing. You get to be known as the City of the Second Opinion, the City of the Second Chance--both precious, life-saving commodities, in their turn. As the heart's most desperate hopes take on the consistency of iron, Durham appears from afar as that most desired thing, the City of the Cure.

It's an effect that isn't limited to the physical sciences. It's playing out in the theatrical arts, right now, at Duke University. A promising stage biography of Jacqueline Susann called Paper Doll--one suffering from a problematic gestation and birth--comes to Durham, looking for a new lease on life. If nothing is done, its initial difficulties will prevent it from reaching its full potential. Its hospital is the Theater Studies department; its operating room, Duke's Theater Previews program.

Producer Emanuel Azenberg started the program, then known as "Broadway at Duke," in 1986. Initially it was something of a theatrical celebrity birthing center, overseeing productions from gestation to term. Over its first eight years, 15 different productions got the Duke treatment. Nine of them made it to Broadway; a 10th, Avner the Eccentric, saw New York in a production under another name.

True, some had longer runs than others: Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, which opened with Linda Lavin and Jason Alexander, played a little less than two years on the Great White Way, while Julie Harris closed Lucifer's Child three brief weeks after opening night. During the same period, Mikhail Baryshnikov's memorable take on Kafka's Metamorphosis first appeared at Duke, as did Lee Blessing's award-winning play A Walk in the Woods, and Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

But since the program was reformulated in 1998, successes like these have been comparatively few. In part, this is because the former all-star maternity ward started taking on problem cases. Under Zannie Girard Voss, the renamed Theater Previews began developing a reputation as something like a theatrical ICU: a place for troubled shows to come, to try to work their problems out.

While a lot of shows open "out of town" these years, no one willingly does it more than once. New York's the goal, and every preliminary production that doesn't get you there is another quarter of a million dollars or more the backers have to spend. At these prices, producers get cold feet quickly. As a rule of thumb, a second out-of-town opening is usually an indication of two things: Somewhere, someone really believes in a show; and somewhere, something went wrong the first time.

The Red Clay Ramblers had already taken shows to Broadway, but their stage adaptation of Doug Marlette's beloved Southern cartoon, Kudzu, was having troubles in 1997. Staged readings at UNC-Chapel Hill and an initial production at Goodspeed Opera House had given some indications of the difficulties the show was facing, but solutions still remained to be worked out and tested.

Thomas Tierney, Jonathan Bolt and John Forster had been struggling for 12 years with the idea of making a musical from the life Eleanor Roosevelt. After an initial production in Issequah, Wash., it had moved to Seattle and Pittsburgh. Then the script lay dormant for half a decade. In 1995, the team revived Eleanor, An American Love Story, and observed incremental growth over the next two years in Illinois, Anaheim and Long Beach, Calif. Still, the play needed one last push to make it what it would ultimately be.

And it was either uncommonly brave or foolish for award-winning Tennessee playwright Naomi Wallace to even contemplate making a play of William Wharton's dense, psychological thriller Birdy. Her daring attempt started at the Drum Theater in Plymouth, England, in 1996, and made it to the wild West End of London the following year. But American audiences--and critics--were far more resistant to a Philadelphia premiere in 1998. The dark psychology of the novel no longer seemed coherent on the stage. Did Birdy have a future?

They all came to Durham: Kudzu in 1998, Eleanor in 1999 and Birdy in 2000. Each found their answer, although the answers weren't always to their liking. Both Kudzu and Eleanor did dates at Washington's Ford Theater, to mixed reviews, before returning to the ranks of regional theater. Birdy enjoyed subsequent productions in South Africa and with the National Theater of Iceland. Perhaps it was ultimately more valued abroad than at home as an American portrait of the casualties of war. After Wallace won a MacArthur "genius" award, Birdy only merited a staged reading in Atlanta's Naomi Wallace Festival last October.

Theater Previews first revival came last year, a remounting of Herb Gardner's 1962 classic, A Thousand Clowns. Ironically, the biggest potential deficit for this possible problem child was its star. Tom Selleck, a one-time television icon, had never done a lot with live theater and had never played in New York theaters--a community not always warm to outsiders.

Clowns was the first of the recent crop to make Broadway. Though The New York Times dismissed the production, it hung on for over two months, closing only in the aftermath of Sept. 11--not long enough to get particularly cozy, perhaps, but a respectable showing nonetheless.

With this track record, the producers of Paper Doll brought their show to Durham.

As with Birdy, the initial reviews from the Pittsburgh premiere were deeply divided. Sure, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review called it "the sort of zesty, irreverent, star-filled, tell-all tale Susann herself might have written had she taken to playwrighting." But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Christopher Rawson called it "flimsy," before concluding, "If the dog is the best thing in the show, it's in trouble." Later, Pittsburgh City Paper's critic Ted Hoover branded it "not ready to open."

In all, they're not quite the notices from which Broadway ad campaigns are made. But even the most negative reviews were overtly diagnostic, if not prescriptive. If the critic from Variety said "things collapse when the show turns serious toward the end," he also labeled it "slick, sardonic and highly commercial." After lobbing a zinger or two, Rawson drew attention to the play's need to solidify, stop meandering, and more closely tie together what seems like "two serial monologues that only occasionally connect."

A bit painful to read? Perhaps. But useful material, all in all, for playwrights looking to tighten up a show. Now all playwrights Mark Hampton and Barbara Zitwer needed was a rewrite, and a bit more money. And a place where they could get a second opinion.

They found it at Duke. As befits its subject, the queen of novels like Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine, Paper Doll is a flashy, trashy tribute to '60s sex, canny self-promotion--and, occasionally, self-pity. Strindberg this ain't, but on Michael McGarty's white, multi-story Mondrian of a set, Marlo Thomas as Susann and F. Murray Abraham as husband and manager Irving Mansfield most definitely connect with each other and with the audience. While the off-stage asides to the folks in the front rows still seem programmatic at times--more interrogation than interaction--its playwrights and director obviously took a number of lessons to heart from their earlier production. Paper Doll is fast and funny, as it purports to give us an insider's view on this kicky writer's life. Though we do feel occasionally whipsawed by two gregarious and equally expert manipulators, still, the ride is never boring.

If we never quite see the calculating monster Michael Korda wrote about in Another Life, Thomas' raspy voice and earthy patter puts us in the presence of the woman Truman Capote once memorably called "a truck driver in drag." One of the more interesting contradictions of the evening comes when Susann's character talks about the culture of fame as both a citizen and a stranger in that land. That she does so while affecting a down-home, just-us-girls air adds to the complexity of the character.

As a successful woman writing about sex in the 1960s, Susann walked between a number of worlds. While the audience is openly invited to reconsider Gloria Steinem's initial write-off, which is included in the script (along with selected score-settling digs at Danielle Steele and others), Paper Doll is not quite the feminist revision some might wish. On the whole, it comes off too facile when the home truths turn sour; at times the playwrights seem busier protecting the author than getting at her story.

While these are probably the seeds of Paper Doll's mortality, they won't prevent the show from reaching its destination. For its flaws, it's funny, smart and never dull. At its best it's a cocktail party with benefits. At its worst, it works the room a bit too hard.

What's equally obvious in this production is that Paper Doll is ready; its next stop is Broadway, and it should be. While it won't stay there forever, it's clearly much stronger for the time it's spent in Durham. Once more, Theater Previews has given a promising show a second opinion, and a second chance. EndBlock

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