Historian and playwright Howard Zinn was renowned for his “people’s histories,” which looked at the course of human events from the perspective of the bottom up, and were presented primarily in books but also onstage, as in 1999’s Marx in Soho. A house specialty of the MACHA Theatre, one of West Hollywood’s dwindling theatrical outlets, is presenting plays about notables from a decidedly Sapphic point of view. In the past, Garbo’s Cuban Lover and Room 105, The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin, have trod the MACHA’s boards, revealing, among other things, the purported same sex lovers of these cultural icons.
The latest show biz legend to get the MACHA treatment is Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn -- My Secret was co-written (with Willard Manus), produced and directed by Odalys Nanin, who also wrote and co-directed the Greta Garbo drama and is the MACHA’s producing artistic director. As with the Joplin play the curtain lifts with the death of the title character, who, as I understood it, sort of looks back at her life along with the audience.
In this latest play with music (sung live but unlike in the Joplin show, accompanied via recording, not by a live band -- alas), the über-movie star is depicted having sex with her acting teacher Natasha Lytess (Merri Jamison, who alternates in this role and as Paula Strasberg with Lori Allen Thomas) and with the stripper Lilly St. Cyr (Hayley Farrell, who alternates in this role with Serah Henesey). Is this supposed to be Marilyn’s big secret? That the sex goddess indulged in some lesbian hanky-panky? If so, big whoop. Whodathunkit?
Marilyn was rather famously married to and allegedly had affairs with noteworthy men, too, and her liaison with Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Sean McCracken, who provides the piece’s only male relief) is portrayed. One of the black and white vintage film clips spliced throughout the live stage production features Marilyn’s sensuously breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung to JFK at what I believe was a Madison Square Garden celebration -- which, as I recall, Jacqueline Kennedy did not, for some strange reason (ahem), attend. Nanin’s script is unkind to the Kennedy brothers (perhaps deservedly so -- what do I know?) who do not treat her well. Marilyn muses, “I knew too much so they got rid of me,” which coming during this 50th anniversary of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination is thought provoking, but the play doesn’t dwell on or develop this point. It’s much more interested in Monroe’s libido than in conspiracy theories, although inquiring minds would like to know if the Kennedys played a role in eliminating Monroe.
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In this reviewer’s opinion the biggest challenge in presenting a bioplay about a superstar renowned for her beauty is to find an actress to portray the exquisite icon who fits the bill, so to speak. Now, before readers jump on this critic for being a male chauvinist pig, he is making the following points because Marilyn Monroe was largely known for her looks (although he’s quite aware that she was a gifted actress and 1961’s The Misfits is this film historian’s favorite film featuring Monroe). And the same point would be made if a male, whose top attributes included being extremely handsome, was being depicted. So, to be candid, Lana Jennifer Harper (who alternates in the lead role with Erin Gavin) does not live up to Monroe in the pulchritude department, which greatly undercuts her ability to convincingly depict the peroxide blonde beauty.
Far worse is that Harper’s performance seems to be an impersonation of Monroe, not a singular incarnation and artistic interpretation of the complicated individual and idol who still inspires worshippers. If “Marilyn Monroe” was a character Norma Jean Baker invented (presumably with some studio input), one doubts that in her private moments she’d use those affectations, like that little girl lost voice meant to allure ticket buyers (although Harper’s singing of Monroe standards is enjoyable). Overall, Joyce Carol Oates’ 700-plus page novel Blonde (which was adapted into a 2001 TV mini-series with Poppy Montgomery) does a far superior job of exploring Marilyn/ Norma Jean’s inner life and bringing this troubled woman alive.
Another sticking point is Jamison’s caricaturish rendition of acting guru Paula Strasberg, who comes across like a cartoon character. Harper as Marilyn gives voice to Paula’s husband, Group Theatre stalwart Lee Strasberg, who doesn’t come off much better. There’s a madness to their method that may leave Strasbergian Actors Studio acolytes yelping. To be fair, however Jamison’s rendition of Natasha is much better.
There is, as mentioned, some simulated sex acts and a smattering of nudity, although for some strange reason Harper lounges around in an unattractive bathrobe during much of the show. Why? Was Victoria’s Secret closed the day the play’s costumer went shopping?
Marilyn -- My Secret is enjoyable enough and probably best seen by those enthralled by Hollywood history (like this writer) and interested in same sex relationships. However, this reviewer is reluctant to say that it is a “must see” for all Marilyn Monroe fans, because he suspects some diehards may object to this portrayal. But as Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding the Third rather immortally cracks at the end of Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot (which had its own gay undertones): “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
[dc]M[/dc]arilyn -- My Secret is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 6:00 p.m. (there is also a 3:00 performance on Sunday Dec. 15 and a 5:00 performance on Sat. Dec. 21) through Jan. 19 at the Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, CA 90069. For more info: (323)960-7862.