By Stanford Friedman
Joanne Hartstone’s one-woman show premiered in her native Australia last February, 8,000 miles from Los Angeles and 8 months prior to the fall of Harvey Weinstein. Yet, in its recounting of the fate of some of the leading film actresses of the 1930’s and 40’s, it is a trenchant reminder that the degradation of women, in their paths to stardom and their behind-the-scenes daily lives, was inherent from the earliest years of the Hollywood system. Employing a blend of fact and fiction, song and story, Ms. Hartstone transports us into a past that is nearly as unsettling as the present.
The girl of the title is not Peg Entwistle, the failed film actress who actually did jump off the H of the Hollywood sign in 1932. Instead, Ms. Hartstone portrays the fictional starlet Evie Edwards. A Great Depression childhood that was mighty depressing and a hard luck life in LA has led Evie into the arms of the giant H on a foggy night in 1949. But before she takes the fatal plunge, she has a few things to get off her chest. Interwoven with her own tale of woe, Theda Bara’s career goes up in smoke, Jean Harlow succumbs to illness, and Judy Garland, well, you know. We also learn that the Hollywood Canteen was decidedly less glamorous for the women forced to work there, and we are introduced to the notorious Hollywood pimp, Scotty Bowers.
Unfortunately for Ms. Hartstone, these real-life truths are more tragic than any fictional character’s could ever be. As a result, Evie comes across as a powerful chronicler of the era, but not as a heroine that we are particularly rooting for. As the show winds toward its bleak conclusion, we are more invested in learning the lore than in hoping against Evie’s demise. Additionally, Evie’s suicidal tendencies feel less than fully earned. The deep secret she harbors till the final scene seems more a bad job interview than a life-ending last straw. Still, Ms. Hartstone’s gutsy and gusto-y performance mostly compensates for the script’s flaws. Her American accent is dosed with Judy Garland zing. She performs songs from the era in a 40’s cinematic warble, including a devastating version of You Made Me Love You that brings a new, harsh meaning to the refrain. And, in a piece of prescient staging, she endows Evie with a stoic pride in her fashion choice, a black dress. As if channeling the sisterhood of this year’s Golden Globe’s red carpet, she declares, “I thought black would be appropriate.”
Production designer Tom Kitney saves himself a world of complications by constructing just the upper half of the letter H. This not only provides an illusion of height and enormity, it gives Ms. Hartstone a low and level acting surface. But director Vince Fusco is faced with a tough choice. Either Evie has to hold tight to the sign for the show’s entire 70 minutes, or break the illusion by letting her use the rest of the stage, lest the audience zone out. Of course, he wisely chooses the latter option, letting Evie float downstage in stark, white light, before her inevitable blackout.
The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign – Written & Performed by Joanne Hartstone. Directed by Vince Fusco.
Production Design by Tom Kitney. Sean Tate, Sr., stage manager. Produced by Matt Morillo/KADM. Presented by Theater For The New City (Crystal Field, Executive Director), 155 1st Ave, 212-254-1109, https://thegirlwhojumpedoffthehollywoodsign.com. Through January 21. Running time: 70 minutes.