FringeNYC turned 18 this year, a mere child compared to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe which has been around since 1947. But this year’s efforts on the Lower East Side seem quite mature nonetheless, with new features like on-the-fly mobile ticketing, performances that have begun and ended on schedule, and comfortable spaces where the air conditioning actually works. It is fitting, then, that one of its final productions for 2014 is a tribute to growing up while trying to stay vital. Indeed, Confessions of Old Lady #2 is nothing if not a lesson on aging well while on the outskirts of show business, a tale of achieving success without ever really knowing fame.
Joan Shepard. The name virtually vibrates with the aura of old Hollywood. Wasn’t she in those Hitchcock Films? No, that was Joan Fontaine. Then that must have been her in The Blue Veil? No, that was Joan Blondell. Well, she nearly got to star with Elvis Presley, but the contract would have included some “bowing before the King” which she, as a new bride, was unwilling to perform. It turns out that Shepard has exactly one film credit to her name: Old Lady # 2 in the forgettable 2008 flick, College Road Trip. Instead of the silver screen, the 81-year-old actress had, or as we are reminded, still has, a lengthy career on the stage, augmented with plenty of TV cameos. In this short, one-woman showcase with music, she presents the highlights of her time treading the boards, patters her way through a handful of tunes, and name-drops as fast as she can. “Confessions” is too strong a term for what she shares; a more accurate title might use the phrase “pleasant remembrances.”
Shepard has nine Broadway shows to her credit, but all came before she reached adulthood. At age seven she was on Broadway with Laurence Olivier in Romeo & Juliet. Tallulah Bankhead once accidentally set her on fire. And if she didn’t appear on stage with Liza, she at least shared the same theater with her, performing in Pinocchio during the day, with a young Ms. Minnelli performing at night. There is a certain pureness in Shepard’s demeanor, so when she boasts of her love of children’s theater, and of her multiple castings as the nurse in Romeo & Juliet, it comes as no surprise. Plus it has the added value of making a couple of her resume credits, where she worked against type, seem especially crazy. These include appearing in a production of the avant-garde drama, Marat/Sade, a job she said she hated so much she got pregnant in order to leave. And, most bizarrely, a stint working a musical comedy show with, of all people, Lenny Bruce. That show’s lyricist would eventually become her husband. Here, accompanied on piano by Michael Ferreri, Shepard preforms a song from that show which has a title that seems stolen from a present-day internet dating parody: “You Kindle My Tinder.”
Ms. Shepard moves about the stage precariously, almost always bracing herself by holding on to the back of a chair, the edge of a table, or the side of a piano, and it is a bit unsettling, especially when countered against the photos of her in her heyday that are periodically projected behind her. Though, more often, the projections are of the celebrities she has encountered, and she makes a point of being in front of the screen, literally upstaging the stars. While losing out to fame seems not to have diminished her will to perform in the least, it is clear that she is in a fight, doing everything in her power not to surrender her body to old age.
Confessions of Old Lady #2 – By Joan Shepard; Directed by Margarett Perry.
WITH: Joan Shepard, Michael Ferreri (Piano).
Stage manager, Eve Sorel; At the Celebration Of Whimsy, 21-A Clinton St, 917-972-9394, Remaining Performances – Friday, August 22 at 4:00 pm, Sunday, August 24 at 2:00 pm, http://www.fringenyc.org, Running Time: 1 hour.