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Paulanne Simmons

Adrienne Barbeau Breathes Life into "The Property Known as Garland"

"The Property Known as Garland"
Directed by Glenn Casale
Actors Playhouse
100 Seventh Ave. South (below Christopher St.)
Opened March 23, 2006
Mon., Thurs., Sat. 8 p.m., Fri. 7 & 10 p.m., Sat. matinee 4 p.m., Sun. matinee 3 p.m.
$35 (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 22, 2006

The lights go up onstage at the Actors Playhouse and Kerby Joe Grubb (excellent in the thankless role of Ed, the stagehand) walks into Charlie Smith's dressing room set where he finds Adrienne Barbeau sprawled face down on a chair.

This is the opening scene of "The Property Known as Garland," and for the first few minutes, it seems apparent that the hapless Ed is going to have to deal with the antics of the drunken diva. Then Barbeau straightens up and introduces herself with deadpan humor: "I'm Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli's mother."

The young man is overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. He eagerly informs Garland that he's seen "The Wizard of Oz" forty-seven times. The star's only response is "Are you gay?"

From that moment on, it's clear that Billy Van Zandt's new play will not be a melodramatic soap opera about the decline and death of the late great Garland, but rather a funny and moving evening with the star at the Falkoner Centre in Copenhagen on March 25, 1969, the night of her final concert.

Of course, all the well-known dirty laundry is again aired, the gay father, the power-hungry mother, MGM's abuse of the child star and the numerous marriages. Some of the people involved in the story (Garland's miserable mother and Louis B. Mayer, who paid Garland's hospital bill before he was sacked by the studio) are actually heard as offstage voices, an unnecessary distraction.

And there's plenty of self-pity. Garland rants about her unloving mother, her poverty, the cruelty of the studio system. She even claims her first suicide attempt was merely to get a day off. Everyone has heard this before.

But there's also wonderful commentary on fellow celebrities, Marlene Dietrich ("my rival at Metro"), Marilyn Monroe (whose death Garland is perhaps fearful will presage her own) and Busby Berkeley ("a horrible, horrible man"). And more than a few tidbits many people may not have known: her sister's suicide, her mother's infidelity, the fiasco of "Valley of the Dolls".

In addition director Glenn Casale uses Zandt's hint of a plot (Garland demands that Ed find her mashed potatoes, something that proves nearly impossible, or she won't go on) to give the show urgency and direction.

But most important, "The Property Known as Garland" is saved by Van Zandt's wife, Adrienne Barbeau (best known for her roles as Betty in "Grease" and Maude's daughter in the TV show "Maude"), whose brilliant performance captures not only Garland's vulnerability but also her strength, her humor and her devotion to her art and her audience.

By the end of the show, one can't help but hope that Garland, a woman, who spent so much of her life trying to get over rainbows, has finally made it to the promised land.

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