Celebration Theatre | 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. | Through Feb. 18 | Tickets $34 | celebrationtheatre.com
After focusing on his unconventional career path in his last solo show, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, Leslie Jordan—best known as Karen Walker’s deliciously bitchy nemesis on Will & Grace—devotes this latest work to his complicated and evolving relationship with Miss Peggy Ann, his long-suffering Southern Baptist mother. Under the shrewd and economical direction of longtime collaborator David Galligan, the pixie from Dixie is blissful company for the delightful 90-minute journey, inducing belly laughs and even a few lumps in the throat in this charming if slightly choppy piece.
Jordan begins with a slideshow, taking us through his childhood and revealing his early penchant for fashion and baby dolls. He remembers fondly the “magic garden” created by his mother and maternal grandmother, where he could do things like “make potholders,” as long as he follows Mother’s repeated advice: “Don’t tell Daddy.” Jordan clearly adored his Daddy, whose untimely death offers the diminutive actor one of many opportunities to impressively revert his entire being to boyhood as he replays critical moments from decades ago.
As little Leslie grows up, things get a little less ideal with Peggy Ann. Adolescent explorations with other members of the Chattanooga Boys Choir have hilariously adult consequences, and Jordan’s reenactments of visits to an illegal black speakeasy called Miss Odessa’s Goodtime House are priceless. Jimmy Cuomo’s inviting set suggests a warm and well-appointed Southern sitting room, giving Jordan several different playing areas to cavort in.
The world-premiere piece loses its shape a bit once Leslie declares he is forgoing college and moving to Atlanta to be “a female impersonator.” It seems Peggy Ann cut contact for a long time, so the show starts to hopscotch through time, stalling in an extended section on Mother’s “hysterical blindness.” One longs to know more about the gaps of time leading up to the wonderfully healing gay cruise to Alaska that Jordan shares with his mother and two sisters. And while Jordan hilariously declares at the outset that his show explores the question “Do gay men really become their mothers?” in actuality the piece doesn’t.
These criticisms are trifles, however, in an evening that is an overall delight. Jordan—equally gifted as a writer and performer—is so at home onstage it is difficult to know if he is ad-libbing at times, and he makes us feel like guests in his parlor as he shares his well-told tales with great humor and his irresistibly mischievous twinkle. —Christopher Cappiello
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Geffen Playhouse | 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. | Through Feb. 12 | Tickets $65-85 | geffenplayhouse.com
It might be helpful to at last have a cursory knowledge of who Molly Ivins is before seeing the Geffen Playhouse’s latest production, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. For the uninitiated, Molly Ivins was a newspaper columnist who was most famous for her quick-witted barbs and outspoken personality. She was also known for having written Elvis Presley’s obituary for The New York Times.
Raised in Houston, Texas, Ivins had a troubled relationship with her father which left her wary of his authority and therefore, skeptical of those in power. A liberal, she frequently commented on the politics of the day and was clearly a supporter of the oppressed. She was most notably fired from the New York Times when she covered a “community chicken-killing festival” in New Mexico, referring to it as a “gang-pluck.”
Over the years she wrote for the Texas Observer, Washington Post and Dallas Times Herald, as well as writing books and becoming a public speaker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 and eventually passed away from the disease in 2007. But her brash charms live on in Red Hot Patriot.
As performed by the legendary Kathleen Turner, Ivins is a gravelly voiced shit-kicker not afraid to speak her mind and always glad to regale an audience with her stories and opinions. Turner is highly engaging (even when you worry for her seemingly strained vocal chords) and embodies Ms. Ivins with not only pluck and sass, but vulnerability as well.
The 75-minute show written by Margaret and Allison Engel (both former reporters) is an amusing romp, but one that lacks emotional heft. Bookended with Ivins writing an apology of sorts to her father, we don’t truly get or feel the connection between her disdain for abusive authority and her father. After a cursory explanation of her family dynamics, Dad isn’t mentioned again until she gets to the day he passed away. By then, the connection is weightless.
What’s left is a ribald concoction of stories that a brassy lady tells about herself at a dinner party. Loud, proud and clever, Ivins is the kind of woman that you’d want to hate at a gathering of strangers, but by night’s end you’d be enraptured by her often humorous tales of the political figures she has met and the relentless jabs she makes at their expense. Turner captures this audacity well, playing to her own strengths as an actress. Fans of Turner will be held captive by her performance. Others might find it a bit aimless and only mildly diverting. —Kevin P. Taft